When you say the word “cherry” most people think of the big red sweet or Bing cherries. Perhaps they picture those tasty yellow ones.
What most people don’t picture are the small fruits of the chokecherry bush or tree. Prunus virginiana. Sounds exciting, right? It is! Chokecherries are also known as Western chokecherries, Virginia bird cherries, and bitter berries. They are not to be confused with chokeberries.
Often overlooked among the masses due to unfamiliarity and the desire not to eat what one doesn’t know to be edible, chokecherries are a giant in the world of foraging for those with edible berry knowledge. Certainly, homesteaders have developed a fondness for these bitter fruits.
Where To Find A Chokecherry Tree?
Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana), not to be confused with chokeberries, are common from Alaska on down to most places in Northern America, although they are absent from some of the southeastern states. They are found in well-watered mountainous areas, and love creeks and ditches.
Chokecherries are also called wild cherries, and stone fruit, and belong to the rose (Rosaceae) family. They get their name from their strong sour taste known to make many pucker when first tasting them.
While I have seen a lone tree, they tend to form clusters of trees, and can be 6-40 feet high. They multiply by their root system as well as by seed, making them abundant when they are found.
Identifying Chokecherry Flowers
Flowers begin to appear in early spring as long clusters of white flowers. This is a distinguishing flower for those who see it and wish to track it and take a closer look in a few months. The flowers themselves are small and smell quite inviting. They appear in long tubular hangings 3-6 inches long.
Flowers will stay into summer. When looking for a chokecherry tree, there is a long window of identification by the flower.
Identifying Chokecherry Berries
Berries of the trees hang in long clusters just as the flowers were. They will turn to a deep red or even black, ripening in late summer to early fall. Picking one for taste is the best way to taste for ripeness.
Picked right off a tree, they are sour earlier on in the year and become less bitter as the season continues. They also get a bit darker as they sit on their branches. I like to pick them at the last minute in late August, just before it starts freezing. I find them nearly black and quite sweet at this point.
It is also said that cooking chokecherries causes them to sweeten up as well, even before sugar is added.
The Pits, Bark, And Leaves Of Chokecherry Trees Are Poisonous
Here’s the drawback that scares people. There are toxic amounts of cyanide in the leaves and bark that cause a threat to livestock, which is one reason homesteaders don’t like to keep them around their horses.
We let hundreds of cattle graze on our land. We have noticed that the pits pass right through the cattle. As far as I know, we’ve never had a cow die from this. However, we never let our horses in these areas (unless we are riding them, and thus know they aren’t eating the leaves, berries or bark). Horses will eat leaves and become poisoned easily.
(For more information on how cyanide is poisonous in the chokecherry tree, read here.)
As far as the fruit itself, it is perfectly safe. The pits are recorded to have been ingested by children–and sadly, many deaths are on record. According to Donald Kirk (see below resources), a few pits are nothing to worry about, but they should never be knowingly swallowed.
I do not let this stop me from foraging this precious berry. In fact, we collect a lot of these berries every year, and I look forward to collecting many this year.
while the fruit of the berry is edible, NOTHING else about it is. In fact, the rest of the plant is poisonous. It is highly toxic to any horses we may want to ride up the mountains to a good patch, as well as my children.
The fruit is small, so a small unknowing child might just put the entire thing in his/her mouth and swallow. We have noticed that the cows and raccoons (don’t ask) will pass these through without digesting them. Horses and humans however, will try to digest them and become sick, and this may even be fatal.
Chokecherries are said to be poisonous to horses, moose, cattle, goats, deer, and any other animals that have segmented stomachs.
What kind of poisonous you may ask? Cyanide poisoning. The pits, the bark, all of it except the actual fruit–are loaded with hydrocyanic acid.
Toxicity is highest in the spring and summer. Wilting leaves give off the hydrocyanic acid as they break down (making them sweet). This is also the case in injured, damaged parts of the plant. New growth is often high in this acid too.
For this reason, it is often a very slow process to collect these as I am busy watching all the littles like a hawk making sure they don’t get even one up to their lips–and that the horses don’t take a nibble on a leaf.
Cyanide poisoning is just something I don’t want to deal with.
But…if you can collect them and process them, they make for some good jellies, jams, eating plain, and juice.
Are There Any Lookalike Bushes And Trees?
Yes. They can be confused with buckthorn (which is not edible), and serviceberries. Ours grow right alongside serviceberries, and even though I harvest and use a heavy amount of both each year, in the right season, I can see how they could be mistaken for each other. The difference in flowers and taste are very obvious giveaways.
What Do You Do With Chokecherries?
If you’ve ever had chokecherry, you know how tart they are. They require a lot of sweeteners. My secret (since you know we rarely use sugar) is to wait until the last minute. We have a couple of patches of 30 or so trees that we use as corrosion control. So even by the end of the season, there are plenty left.
At the very end of the season, the berries are dark in color–almost black. I actually will eat them plain (being careful not to bite the seed, and spitting it out of course) at the end of the season, and don’t find them bitter at all.
Chokecherries are commonly used to make jams, syrups, and even wine. In addition, our family eats many of them fresh, and makes a very tasty juice. They are safe for water bath canning, and this is how I preserve them. Our favorite way to make jam is a strawberry-chokecherry jam. (Foraging the Rocky Mountains , the below listed resource is a Field Guide that also includes a recipe for every wild edible. It includes a chokecherry jelly recipe.)
Never try to juice a chokecherry, as the pits are very hard and will break your machine. Although I have not done this myself, I have heard from others who have tried to do it. This is also another reason I don’t worry about eating the fruit off the pits. I am quite sure I would break a tooth far before I would “accidentally” bite through one and poison myself.