Chokecherries are small, dark red fruit that grow in clusters. They have a very tart taste, and are generally not eaten raw. Cooking removes the bitterness, so they are mostly used jelly, syrups, and wine. The seeds contain a poisonous substance called hydrocyanic acid, so they need to be removed, or you can boil the berries and use the juice and discard the pits (seeds) and pulp.
I wasn’t really familiar with chokecherries until I moved to Wyoming. They seem to grow everywhere around here! I learned to identify the chokecherry bushes, and I soon learned to make chokecherry jelly with the berries, which is fantastic.
How to identify a chokecherry tree
The chokecherry trees are small, rather spindly things. More like a bush than a tree. If the conditions are right, they can grow to a small tree size, around 20 ft tall. The biggest one I have ever seen was the size of an average apple tree. They grow in many types of soil – only finding difficulty in heavy clay soil. They grow in fencerows, old construction sites, riparian areas, and roadsides.
The leaves are about 3-4 inches long, and 1-2 inches wide, with serrated edges. The flowers are white, and grow in little clusters – like grapes. They bloom from April to July, then form fruits later.
The fruits are dark red when ripe, and rather astringent when eaten raw. (like persimmons!) Boiling the fruit removes the astringent quality, which why the fruits are rarely eaten raw.
The fruit of the chokecherry tree is the only part of the chokecherry tree that is edible. The leaves, bark, stem, and stones (seeds) are poisonous.
Cattle and sheep are the most susceptible. About 4 ounces of leaves are lethal to a 100 lb animal. Be sure there is plenty of good feed in the pasture, so animals do not get tempted to browse on chokecherries. Source: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services.
Are Chokecherries poisonous to humans?
Children have been severely poisoned by chewing on leaves or twigs. Be careful to keep all chokecherry plant matter out of reach of children!
Reactions to poisoning may include; anxiety; uneasiness; confusion; dizziness; headache; nausea; vomiting; the lips turn blue; bloating; dilation of the eyes; muscular weakness; abnormal breathing, either very labored or very rapid; paralysis of the throat; irregular heart beat; or convulsions.
How to use chokecherries?
I like to use them in jelly and syrup. The flavor of chokecherry jelly is somewhat earthy, but very delicious. Click here to get my recipe. Chokecherry jelly can be tricky to make, and sometimes it doesn’t set up very well. But the great thing is; if the jelly is too runny – just call it syrup and pour it over pancakes or waffles or ice cream!
Here’s a recipe for chokecherry syrup. If you have chokecherry trees in your area, I encourage you to pick a bunch and try your hand at making jelly or syrup.
You can also try making wine. I haven’t tried this, but here is a chokecherry wine recipe page you can check out.