Chokecherry – Prunus Virginiana: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Sour Cherry of Wild Plants

Table of Contents

In Chippewa, a’sisuwe’minaga’wunj, chokecherries are one of our most commonly found edible and medicinal berry shrubs. The “choke” is a reference to how sour they are. Pucker up!

Choke cherry – Prunus virginiana
Choke cherry – Prunus virginiana

Common around Haliburton and in Algonquin park too, chokecherry dots the roadsides, stream edges and fencerows. They may be the most widespread tree in North America. Up here, as many trees do further north, it turns into more of a shrub. With a little practice you’ll be able to tell them apart from pincherries, small black cherry trees, serviceberries, etc., and most importantly from inedible berries like red-berried elder. They bloom after serviceberries. They are slightly larger than pincherries. Differentiating berries takes some practice.

Choke cherry – Prunus virginiana
Choke cherry – Prunus virginiana

Edible Uses of Chokecherry

The only part of the chokecherry you can eat raw is the cherry flesh when it’s fully ripe. You can chew the sour flesh off these pea sized cherries and spit out the pits (they are mostly pit!) Like wood sorrel, it can quench thirst on the trail.

The bark, leaves, seeds/pits and even the wood contain cyanide. Cooking or drying destroys the cyanide. This is a pretty common situation with wild fruit, and not just cherries, elderberry comes to mind for one. Like raspberries and strawberry, you also don’t want to eat the wilted leaf for the same reason. No wilted leaves might as well be another rule-of-thumb in the bush.

The sourness of the flesh is why some consider chokecherry a survival food. Still the fruit can be used in jams, jellies, juice, syrups and even beers and wines, or maybe a cherry vinegar. Dried goods is another option, including fruit leather. The cherries are easily dried in the sun for winter storage. Drying also mellows the berries flavor. It’s one of the main dried fruits used in pemmican, a traditional winter staple of Native Americans.

Dried kernels are edible but hard to separate from the shells.

Medicinal Uses of Chokecherry

Chokecherry is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive
  • Integumentary
  • Respiratory

Medicinal tags include Antispasmodic, Astringent, and Expectorant. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes red astringent berries and bitter young bark for the usual uses: runs, cough, skin wash. You can read more about cherry bark in our black cherry entry. I go into more detail there about wild cherry used in cough remedies and to flavor cough drops and syrups. And there’s a recipe!

Alternative Uses of Bitter-berry

Crushed leaves or thin strips of bark are used as an insecticide in enclosed spaces.

Chokecherry wood makes decent tent pegs and other small woodworking crafts.

Growing Prunus Virginiana

Chokecherries have been planted extensively with pincherries for wildlife habitat – a great idea to borrow. Young ones transplant well. As with many shrubs in the prunus family, over time the roots sucker and can form a glorious wildlife friendly thicket. It’s not so friendly to livestock however, containing prussic acid, so if you have goats or some other bush gnawing livestock (cattle, horses, etc.), pass on it. It’s also toxic to moose and deer but they seem to know better. It takes about 20 pounds of foliage to kill. With all these related shrubs, many birds and mammals strip the berries before they ripen. Lucky them 🙂

The leaves of the chokecherry are a favorite of lepidoptera moths among many more of our 3000-ish moth species up here. Tent caterpillars may pick a chokecherry too. While they are a bit of an eye sore, they won’t last long and their feces will enrich the soil.

WARNINGS

Most parts of this plant contain cyanide, which can be destroyed by cooking or drying.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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REFERENCES

wiki/Prunus_virginiana

The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants

Mi’kmaq Medicines (2nd edition): Remedies and Recollections

Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Native American)

Indian Herbalogy of North America: The Definitive Guide to Native Medicinal Plants and Their Uses

The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine

An Eclectic Guide to Trees East of the Rockies

Eating Wild in Eastern Canada: A Guide to Foraging the Forests, Fields, and Shorelines

Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants (Out of Print)

Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants

Native Plants, Native Healing: Traditional Muskagee Way

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

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