As people with New Mexico roots can tell you, chokecherry season arrives in mid to late August. That’s when families head out to the hills and stream banks to fill their buckets with the tiny, garnet berries that make a sweet-tangy jelly (a rare delicacy) and a deep rose-colored wine or liqueur to take the chill off winter evenings. The trick is to find the berries—smaller than a Bing cherry by about half, with about twice as much pit—while they are hanging in clusters ripe on the tree before the bears and the birds have taken them all.
Throughout New Mexico, from Cimarron Canyon to the Manzanos, families forage for the wild cherry, one of the most widespread edible and medicinal native plants in North America, found throughout New England, along the Appalachian Trail and the Eastern Seaboard and into Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, New Mexico, and Colorado. As a pioneer species, the chokecherry thrives in open sites with rich, moist soils. Because birds distribute the seeds, it takes root on the borders of woods, in clearings, and along creek and ditch banks.
Many New Mexico families have their trees that they return to season after season for wildcrafting. The small, slender-trunked shrublike tree, a member of the rose family with the botanical name of Prunus virginiana, rarely grows taller than 30 feet. Small white flowers appear on its branches in the spring, flowers that months later mature into the prized berries. Sour enough to produce a hard pucker if tasted raw, which is how the berry got its name, the chokecherry’s astringent taste mellows out when it is dried or cooked.
Stan Schug, associate curator of horticulture at the Rio Grande Botanical Garden in Albuquerque, says the wild chokecherry can be cultivated in home gardens. “I like to use them as a bird attractant,” he says. The chokecherry prefers indirect light and rich soil that is at least 50 percent compost. Purchase them at native plant nurseries and keep them out of full, direct sun.
The healing and nutritive properties of the chokecherry are well-known to native people. Meriwether Lewis, taken ill during the Lewis and Clark expedition, was revived by drinking a tea prepared of wild cherry bark (Sacajawea’s recipe, perhaps?). A staple Indian food, pemmican, is made by grinding dried chokecherries, pits and all, with pulverized meat and fat, then baked to form a jerky that stores and travels well. The Indian diet, rich in the vitamin C-loaded berries, prevented scurvy.
An infusion of the mature black bark is thought to be a remedy for headache, fever, worms, diarrhea, sore throat and coughs, bronchitis, heart and lung problems, and it is also used as an eyewash. This astringent cherry bark tea is sipped in the springtime by Indians, homesteaders, and mountain people as a cleansing spring tonic. Hispanic old-timers in the Manzanos tell of a favorite dessert made by pouring chokecherry syrup over fresh goat cheese and run under the grill. This dish could have originated as a poor man’s interpretation of the fruit-and-cheese combination eaten as a last course in Spain, a resourceful way to use whatever was available.
After apprenticing with longtime jelly maker Eloise Henry in Raton for several seasons, last year I took a different approach and tried my hand at chokecherry liqueur. Poured into pretty glass bottles, each tied with a bright ribbon, the fuschia-colored liqueur made a stunning holiday gift—in fact, based on my friends’ happy reactions, this was one of the most unique and successful gift ideas I’d ever come across. Although some people might receive the same gift two years in a row, I intend to repeat myself this year, so long as the chokecherries can be found in abundance. It’s a lot more fun to make liqueur than it is to ransack my brain at the mall; in addition, the pleasure of looking at my kitchen shelf lined with my pretty creations, made from chokecherries I’d picked myself, is quite satisfying.
And the bright flavor of chokecherry syrup poured on blue corn-piñon pancakes at a January weekend brunch recalls a warm, cloudy August afternoon of reaching up to pull ruby-jeweled clusters of berries from tangled branches.
Chokecherries require quite a bit of preparation to distill their essence, which may be frozen to be used later in syrup, jelly, wine, and liqueur making. See the recipe on page 43 for preparing basic chokecherry juice.