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Chokecherry: a lethal plant to horses

  • Remove all chokecherries and other cherry species from horse pastures.

  • Chokecherry plants contain the toxin, cyanide, in their leaves and seeds.

  • Horses are commonly found dead after eating chokecherry.

  • Chokecherry fruit is safe for humans to eat.

Identifying 

Chokecherry matures to a height of 6 to 10 feet. It has an irregular round top, often with a crooked or leaning trunk. Chokecherry leaves have teeth and are usually oval-shaped. The flowers bloom in June and the cherries ripen in August. Chokecherry is a perennial tall shrub or sometimes a small tree.

Chokecherry in bloom
Chokecherry in bloom
Fall leaf color of chokecherry
Fall leaf color of chokecherry
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Toxicity

The toxin, cyanide, makes chokecherry toxic to horses. Release of cyanide occurs when horses chew chokecherry seeds or forage or when the forage wilts (e.g. after a frost). Cyanide may be higher in young growing plants.

Plants of the cherry genus have varying levels of toxin in their leaves and seeds. The following have more toxin in their foliage.

  • Agucatillo

  • Cherry laurel

  • Black, wild or rum cherry

  • Chokecherry

Apricots and peaches tend to have more toxin present in their seeds.

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Control

You should remove all chokecherries and other cherry species from your horse pastures. Don’t plant cherry species in your horse pastures.

Other information

The fruit of chokecherry (and other cherry species) isn’t harmful to humans. Many use it for making jams, jellies, pies, sauces and wines.

Krishona Martinson, equine Extension specialist; Lynn Hovda, DVM, adjunct assistant professor, College of Veterinary Medicine; Mike Murphy, DVM, former professor, College of Veterinary Medicine; and Patrick Weicherding, former Extension educator

Reviewed in 2018

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