Species Spotlight: Chokecherry and Blue Elderberry

Anne White

Author: Elizabeth MacLagan  |  Published: May 18, 2023  | Category: Species Spotlight 

Widely planted for habitat restoration, Chokecherry and Blue Elderberry are important species in the high desert ecosystem. These small trees succeed in riparian areas — lands that occur along the edges of rivers, streams, lakes, and other water bodies — making them an essential part of Oregon Natural Desert Association’s work to steward desert waterways. The trees are featured in ONDA work to restore the Malheur River in partnership with the Burns Paiute Tribe.

Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)

Found throughout North America from the high arctic Canadian provinces and coast to coast in the United States, these small trees show up in archeological middens, attesting to their cultural importance among Native Americans for millennia. In 1629 they were exported to England and were cultivated as an orchard crop in the American colonies as early as 1724.

Prunus is the Roman-named family of cherries, prunes, and plums, while virginiana was assigned by Linneaus, reflecting their presence in colonial Virginia. The common name warns of the astringent quality of the raw fruit.

The early spring flowers attract butterflies, honeybees and ants to their nectar, which in turn attracts insect-eating birds, providing food, cover and nesting habitat. Bears, as well as hares, rodents, and birds eat the fruit, and deer use the shrubs as a winter browse.

Widely planted for habitat restoration,  Chokecherry succeed in riparian areas and are an important part of ONDA’s efforts along the Malheur River, where they are spreading by suckering and may eventually form thickets. Like other riparian species, they provide streamside shade and their rhizomatous, net-like root structure helps prevent erosion.

Classified as shrubs or small trees, they may reach 30’ in height, with a spreading crown and alternate oval to elliptical leaves. The white, almond scented flowers are arranged in cylindrical racemes appearing as early as April. Fruits form a few months later, first appearing green, then darkening to red, purple, and black as the season progresses and the leaves turn salmon in fall.




Badgers are generally nocturnal, but, in remote areas with no human encroachment, they are routinely observed foraging during the day. They prefer open areas with grasslands, which can include parklands, farms, and treeless areas with crumbly soil and a supply of rodent prey.

Badgers are born blind, furred, and helpless. Their eyes open at four to six weeks.

Latin name: Taxidea taxus




Found only in North America, where it is the most common wildcat, the bobcat takes its common name from its stubby, or “bobbed,” tail. The cats range in length from two to four feet and weigh 14 to 29 pounds. Bobcats mainly hunt rabbits and hares, but they will also eat rodents, birds, bats, and even adult deer.

Latin name: Lynx rufus fasciatus



Durlin Hicock, Alice Elshoff Award winner

Durlin Hicock, Alice Elshoff Award winner

“Protecting public land is part of my spiritual being. It’s central to my identity to be in wilderness and to see it protected.” Durlin is proud to protect public lands for future generations, saying, “The highlight of my childhood was our family’s weekend outdoor trips. I look forward to my grandchildren having similar experiences outside in their lifetimes, and it wouldn’t be possible without ONDA.”

Courtney Kelly Jett

Tom Brandt

Blue Elderberry (Sambucus nigra var. caerulea)

One of the most widely distributed shrubs in North America and Europe, the blue elderberry shows up as a possible fossil in John Day’s Clarno Nut Beds, incompletely identified but intriguing: fossil evidence points to a circum-global forest in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere sometime during the Eocene, 56-32.9 million years ago; in other words, this shrub really gets around.

Names too suggest origin stories: Sambuca was an ancient Greek wind instrument, referencing the use of twigs to make whistles, and elder comes not from “old” but from the Anglo-Saxon “aeld”, meaning fire, because hollow stems of the shrub were used as bellows.

The flowers, bark, leaves, twigs and roots are a native pharmacopeia, and the berries are an important late-season food gift. Well-loved by bears, game birds, squirrels, deer, and elk, the shrubs provide food and nesting territory for a plethora of songbirds.

Widely used in riparian restoration projects, they are thriving in ONDA’s collaborative plantings with the Northern Paiute at Juntura along the Malheur River. Part of the desert stream’s thin green line, they provide streamside shade, sheltering other plant species, and helping to stabilize banks with their roots.

This 3-20’ shrub has yellow-white flowers in flat sprays that rise above compound pointy shaped leaves, followed by blackish-blue berries. If you have the opportunity, raise a glass to this remarkable shrub, known and treasured by cultures across millennia spanning the globe, and right here in our desert backyard.

Anne White

Andy Frank