Chokecherry Delight

It’s chokecherry season and there’s a wealth of opportunity in the berries of this prolific shrub just waiting to be realized.


| August/September 2002



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Although the chokecherry fruit doesn’t usually ripen until late summer, the white blossoms show off against the green leaves in spring.


Photo ©2002 Steven Foster

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.

4 Great Recipes with Chokecherries
• Chokecherry Syrup
• Chokecherry Jelly
• Chokecherry Liqueur
• Basic Chokecherry Juice Preparation

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.

Medicinal properties

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.





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