The Wild Cherry – A Tasty Summer Fruit You Can Forage Nationwide

Wild cherry (Prunus virginiana) trees are widespread across North America and are quite prevalent in some dry areas. Many are surprised to discover that these trees thrive in the western regions, which are often thought of as too dry for cherries.

However, wild cherry varieties have adapted well to the arid conditions. Their deep root systems and thick, waxy leaves help them endure droughts, making them well-suited to the semi-desert climate.

A Widespread Shrub

Botanists consider wild cherries among the most widespread wild shrubs in North America. The Prunus genus, to which wild cherries belong, also includes nectarines, peaches, plums, and almonds. This large group is known for its mostly edible fruits and seeds that can be either toxic or safe to eat after processing.

A notable historical mention of wild cherries being consumed by Southern California’s indigenous people comes from Father Junipero Serra. In July 1769, while traveling through the San Gabriel Valley, he observed the local tribes using cherries, grass seeds, and other wild seeds as food sources.

Some cherry bushes or trees retain their leaves year-round and can be mistaken for holly by hikers. When leading field trips about wild plants with friends, I often ask them to crush a cherry leaf. After a few seconds, they usually notice a smell similar to bitter almond extract, which is used in baking. This distinctive scent comes from hydrocyanic acid (cyanide), which is why it’s unsafe to brew tea from the leaves.

Always Pay Attention and Ensure You Know How to Use the Harvested Plant

wild cherry leaves and flowers
Wild Cherry (Prunus virginiana) leaves and flowers

Wild cherry fruits typically ripen in late summer. If you’re hiking during this season, you might come across bushes bearing fruit, some of which may be ripe enough to eat. While many can guess that the fruit is edible, it’s crucial never to eat any wild plant unless you are certain it is safe. Assuming a plant is edible based on appearance alone can lead to serious illness or even death.

Wild cherries differ in taste from commercially grown ones. They contain less sugar and have a distinctive bitter and tart flavor, which can be especially satisfying when food supplies are limited in the backcountry. Like commercial cherries, wild cherries have a single large seed surrounded by edible flesh. In years with plenty of rainfall, this flesh is thicker and sweeter, while in drier years, it can be as thin as paper.

Historically, indigenous populations valued the pulp of wild cherries, but they prized the seeds even more. After removing the thin shells, they used the solid pulp inside the pits, which, when chewed, offers a mix of bitterness and sweetness similar to that of store-bought cherry pits.

To remove the hydrocyanic acid, the seeds undergo a process akin to acorn preparation. Shell the seeds and boil the pulp for about 30 minutes, changing the water several times. Generally, three boilings are sufficient to make the cherry seeds safe to eat. Dr. James Adams, co-author of Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, states, “Boiling the mashed cherry pits in water for 30 minutes destroys all the cyanide. The cyanide boils off.” The resulting product can be ground into flour and used in breads, pancakes, soups, or other dishes. The flour has a pleasant sweetness.

During my wild-food cooking experiences, I shell the cherry seeds, boil them whole three times, and then either eat them directly or grind them into flour. This flour, often mixed with wheat, makes delicious little pancakes.

Wild Cherry is also known as Chokecherry

The Cahuilla people from the desert area around Palm Springs, California, called this plant “cha-mish,” and today it is known as chokecherry. Instead of using the leached seeds for breads, they primarily used them in soups or mush. For storage, they sometimes formed the meal into small cakes, which, when dried, became very hard and black. These cakes could be stored for long periods and rehydrated before consumption.

One type of pemmican was made by combining the fruit of chokecherries with deer or elk meat. Naturalist Dr. James Adams enhances a cherry seed mush by adding applesauce, a combination that his students find enjoyable.

A Few Recipes Using Chokecherries

Cherry Chiller

Start with about five cups of ripe wild cherries, removing the stems. Place the cherries in a pot and cover them with spring or filtered water. Bring to a boil and gently mash the fruits. Let the mixture simmer for around half an hour. Strain the liquid through a colander or cloth. If desired, sweeten with honey and serve chilled.

Native American Culinary Uses

Most California tribes used the shelled seeds of wild cherries to make porridge or meal. The fruit’s flesh was commonly added to pemmican mixes for its sugar content. Fresh cherries were also used to make stews, jams, and jellies.

The porridge made from the shelled seeds was often a staple food, providing essential nutrients. By grinding the seeds into a fine meal and boiling it, tribes created a nourishing and filling dish. The addition of cherry flesh to pemmican, a mixture of dried meat and fat, not only added sweetness but also helped preserve the food, making it an important resource during long journeys or harsh seasons.

In making stews, fresh wild cherries were cooked with other ingredients to enhance flavor and provide a natural sweetness. Jams and jellies made from fresh fruits were likely enjoyed as a treat and used to preserve the cherries for later use, ensuring a supply of fruit beyond the harvesting season. These methods of preparation and preservation reflect the resourcefulness and adaptability of the indigenous peoples in utilizing wild cherries.

Wil-Cherry Jam

To make wild cherry jam, start with at least five cups of pitted cherry fruits. Place the cherries in a pot with a small amount of water. Add a cup of sugar, opting for a healthier alternative if desired. Add the juice of one lemon. Cook the mixture for about an hour or until it thickens and reaches 220 degrees Fahrenheit. Transfer the jam into sterilized jars and follow standard canning procedures. If you’re unsure about canning techniques, consult a home canning book or check online resources for guidance.

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The Medicinal Value Of Wild Cherry

Wild cherry has several medicinal uses, both historically and in modern herbal medicine. Here are some of these medicinal uses:

Historical and Traditional Uses

Respiratory Issues: The bark of wild cherry has been traditionally used to make syrups and teas to treat coughs and other respiratory issues. Its natural expectorant properties help relieve bronchitis and soothe irritated throats.

Asthma Relief: Native American tribes sometimes used wild cherry bark in treatments for asthma.

Digestive Aid: Wild cherry bark tea was also used to reduce inflammation in the digestive tract, providing relief from colitis and other inflammatory bowel conditions.

Pain Relief: The bark contains compounds that have mild sedative and pain-relieving effects, making it useful for headaches and other minor pains.

Modern Herbal Uses

Anti-inflammatory and Antioxidant: Polyphenols and Flavonoids: Wild cherries contain polyphenols and flavonoids, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These compounds can help reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the body.

Skin Health: Anti-Aging: Due to their antioxidant content, wild cherries are sometimes used in skin care for their potential anti-aging benefits.

Heart Health: Cardiovascular Benefits: The antioxidants in wild cherries may also support heart health by reducing inflammation and preventing oxidative damage to blood vessels.

Preparation and Use

Tinctures: Wild cherry bark can be prepared as a tincture, which can be used as a convenient form of administration for its medicinal benefits.

Infusions and Decoctions: The bark is often simmered to make decoctions, which are more concentrated than teas and can be used for more severe symptoms.

Topical Applications: Infused oils or salves made from wild cherry can be applied to the skin to reduce inflammation or soothe minor irritations.

Safety and Precautions

While wild cherry has numerous benefits, it is important to use it properly:

Dosage: Always follow recommended dosages, as excessive use can lead to toxicity due to the presence of cyanogenic compounds.

Preparation: Proper preparation is crucial to remove harmful compounds. For instance, boiling the bark and changing the water helps to remove cyanide.

Consultation: Before using wild cherry as a remedy, it’s advisable to consult with a healthcare provider, especially for pregnant or nursing women and individuals with existing health conditions.

This plant has been valued for its medicinal properties across different cultures and continues to be used in various forms to support health and well-being.

Wild Cherry as a Resource and Ornamental Plant

prunus ilicifolia
Holly-leaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia)

Wild cherry is not only valued for its medicinal properties but also serves as a versatile resource for woodworking projects. The long, straight branches of various wild cherry species are prized for making archery bows, backrests, baby cradles, and various crafts.

For those interested in cultivating native shrubs and trees in their yards, wild cherry is a compelling option. Its shiny leaves add aesthetic appeal, particularly the common holly-leaf cherry (P. ilicifolia), which features leaves resembling those of the camellia plant, with a simple ovate to round shape and fine teeth along the margins.

During spring, wild cherry trees burst into bloom with numerous white flowers. As summer progresses, these blossoms give way to small green cherries, which gradually ripen to pink, then red, and finally to a deep black when fully matured.

Cultivation and Appearance

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Growing wild cherries can enhance the natural beauty of your landscape while providing practical benefits. Here are some key points to consider:

Attractive Foliage: The shiny leaves of wild cherry trees add visual interest to any garden or yard, particularly the common holly-leaf cherry, known for its camellia-like foliage.

Fruit Development: Observing the transformation of the fruits from green to pink, red, and black can be a delightful experience throughout the summer months.

Woodworking Potential: Beyond its ornamental value, wild cherry offers a renewable resource for woodworking enthusiasts, providing durable and versatile material for various projects.

Considerations for Cultivation

When considering growing wild cherries, it’s important to note the following:

Suitable Environment: Wild cherries thrive in a variety of climates and soil types, making them adaptable to different growing conditions.

Maintenance: While wild cherries are relatively low-maintenance, regular pruning may be necessary to maintain shape and encourage optimal fruit production.

Harvesting: If you’re interested in harvesting the fruits, ensure you plant a sufficient number of trees for adequate pollination and fruit set.

Wild cherry trees offer both practical utility and aesthetic appeal, making them an excellent choice for those seeking native plant species for their landscapes. Whether for woodworking projects or simply to enjoy the beauty of their blossoms and fruits, wild cherries can enrich any outdoor space.

Concluding

Wild cherry is an ideal summer fruit to harvest, offering a delightful blend of practicality and natural beauty. From its versatile medicinal properties to its woodworking potential and ornamental value, the wild cherry tree embodies the essence of a multifaceted summer companion.

Its shiny leaves, delicate white blossoms, and vibrant fruit progression from green to pink to deep black provide a visual feast for nature enthusiasts. Moreover, the ease of cultivation and adaptability to various environments make wild cherry an accessible choice for both experienced gardeners and beginners alike.

Whether relishing its sweet-tart flavor in homemade jams and pies, incorporating its wood into artisanal crafts, or simply admiring its presence in the summer landscape, the wild cherry stands as a testament to the abundance and beauty of the season.

Suggested resources for preppers:

Harvesting and canning wild greens

The #1 food of Americans during the Great Depression

Survival Foods of the Native Americans

If you see this plant when foraging, don’t touch it!

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