Chokecherry

Prunus virginiana

Herbs gallery - Chokecherry

Common names

  • Bitter-Berry
  • Chokecherry
  • Virginia Bird Cherry
  • Western Chokecherry

Chokecherry (scientific name Prunus virginiana) is a type of bird cherry from the Prunus genus and the Padus subgenus. The tree's origin is on the North American continent and it can be found in all the countries in the region. It is native to the North part of Mexico (the states of Durango, Sonora, Chihuahua and Baja California), almost all of the United States excluding just some South-Eastern states (but it is present in Alaska) as well as Canada (everywhere except in Labrador, Yukon and Nunavut).

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Chokecherry can be considered either a large shrub or a small tree, since it reaches a maximum height of 5 m. Its leaves have jagged edges and are oval in shape, between 3 and 10 cm long. Flowers emerge only at the end of spring and are located on racemes with a length of 38 to 76 cm. Fruits have a vivid color, ranging from red to black. They are small, with a diameter of about 1 cm, and have a specific taste that is sour and bitter at the same time. When the fruits get fully ripe, they become black and have a sweeter taste than the immature red ones.

Parts used

Fruits, stems, bark.

Uses

Chokecherries were a key fruit for the natives that inhabited the northern part of the American continent. They were actually the most important one in the diet of tribesmen living in the boreal forests and in the regions of the Northern Plains and Northern Rockies. The chokecherry tree also had a number of medicinal uses. Native Indians used the bark to prepare a concoction thought to increase immunity and cure colds but also used in the treatment of digestive problems and fevers. Natives also included it as an ingredient in their herbal smoking mixtures, named the kinnikinnick. These largely consisted of bearberry leaves but they often added the inner bark P. virginiana or alder to improve the flavour. The fruits are still made into syrups or jams but sugar must be added to compensate for the bitterness of the fruits.

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A large quantity of chokecherry remains have been found by archeologists in most digging sites in the US state of North Dakota. As a result, it was selected as the official state fruit after an official bill signed by Governor John Hoeven in 2007.

Plains Indians used sticks made from P. virginiana in order to roast meat. The chokecherry has the advantage that it burns very slowly and gives some of its flavour to the game meat. Chokecherry sticks were also good for the construction of teepees, the traditional native tents. The natives also used the chokecherry wood for many other purposes: to make toothpicks, arrows, bows, tamp sticks, paint applicators, pipe stems, digging sticks, medicine pipe tripods, bow drills, skewers or back rests.

The chokecherry fruits are also used to brew a special type of wine in the US states as Utah and the two Dakotas, but also in the Canadian province of Manitoba.

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Chokecherries have a long history of medical use and most parts of the herb were considered to have beneficial effects. It was mostly brewed into a tea that could be made from the bark, roots, leaves or stems. The tea was used to treat colds, fevers and infections but also to reduce high blood pressure and to treat other heart conditions. Singers also drank it before a performance in order to clear their throats. The tea was additionally used against internal parasites and stomach disorders. The bark is an ingredient in cough syrup ever since the 1800's.

Many animals can't eat chokecherry because it is toxic to them. This includes cows, deer, horses, goats, sheep, moose and any other ruminants. The plant is especially dangerous to them when the leaves become wilted, because they get sweeter and more appealing to the animals. Quantities of over 10 lbs can be lethal. Intoxicated horses display signs of poisoning like irregular breathing, dizziness and agitation. However, the leaves are consumed by insects, in particular the caterpillars from the Lepidoptera genus.

Culinary uses

Chokecherries can be eaten raw but remember to remove the stone in the middle. These are poisonous and there have been cases of kids who died after ingesting them in large quantities. The reason is a toxic compound named hydrocyanic acid, which is found in every part of the plant except the flesh. However, this poison is not very resilient and is removed by drying or cooking the fruits.

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The berries have been a very popular fruit among the natives because they are easy to harvest. Tribesmen ate them fresh or processed them by crushing the berries into a paste that was mixed with lard or sugar and heated up in a pan. The dried fruits were also added to stews or used as an ingredient in cakes alongside pemmican.

Choke cherries continue to be eaten today, usually as a jelly. They can also be turned into wine or a syrup for breakfast pancakes. Freezing the crushed berries is an easy way to store them for later use.

Habitat and cultivation

The chokecherry is found almost anywhere on the North American continent and might even be the most common tree of the region. It is widespread in Canada, from Newfoundland to British Colombia, except in the most northern forests. It is equally common in the United States, where it grows anywhere in the northern half, from the state of Georgia to the Appalachians mountains. It is conspicuous in the Rocky Mountains but also in some of the Southern states like New Mexico or Arizona.

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P. virginiana normally inhabits riverside areas and likes wet soil but can also tolerate dry locations. It loves disturbed land and expands immediately in places like roadsides, edges of forests, fencerows, railroad right-of-ways or abandoned fields. It shares this trait with other trees that grow along rivers, like plum, boxelder, American elm, pokeweed, milkweed, riverside grape, cottonwood or hawthorn. All of them are native to riversides but thrive in disturbed locations. The chokecherry also loves dry areas like pine barrens or woodlands but also swamps. The tree will grow in shade but for a good production of fruit it needs direct sunlight.

Collection and harvesting

Many people harvest the fruit before it is ripe and get a wrong idea about its real taste. If the fruits are red, they are not ripe enough and should not be collected. They have to be left on the tree for about one week after they turn completely black, without the slightest shade of red. The overripe berries lose much of their astringent taste and become a lot sweeter, with an excellent flavour. The exact harvest time varies from one region to another but is usually at the end of August or the start of September. Some people harvest the fruits at the end of July but these are usually red and not fully ripe, with a very bitter taste.

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