As chokecherries are found in nearly every state and climate, it’s no wonder that Native Americans (who really lived self-reliance to the max) of most tribes used them extensively. And, like ancient Indians, we also rely on these fruits of the wild orchard.
Finding and identifying chokecherries
Chokecherries grow along semi-open areas, often near water. They are usually a smallish shrub to small tree in shape, usually growing in groves. The leaf and bark resemble a sour domestic cherry. The chokecherries are easily spotted in the spring when their single white blossoms make them stand out dramatically. The blossoms hang in small, long bunches and perfume the air for weeks.
The cherries themselves begin as red, but you don’t want to eat them then, or you’ll really know where they got their name! Yuck! They are puckering bitter. But as the weeks pass, keep an eye on those red, grape-like clusters, and you’ll see them get darker and darker, finally turning a deep purple-black. When they are first dark, they are still a bit sour, but that’s when you want to pick them for jelly, jam, and preserves.
As with every other native fruit, you do want to make sure what you are picking. About the only non-edible I can think of that you could possibly confuse the cherries with is the nightshade. The berries are the same colors: red then black. But nightshade, which is poisonous, is a vine, not a tree or shrub, and the leaves are not cherry-like.
Chokecherries are usually abundant and easy to pick. My husband and I just picked three gallons in an hour. The one good thing about chokecherries is that you don’t have to climb to pick ‘em. I learned a lesson from an old black bear sow with cubs.
There was a row of chokecherries along one of our pastures. I’d already picked a lot of them, leaving the big, plump bunches out of my reach. She strolled up to a bush, then right over it. As the branches bent under her weight, she just stood there pawing bunches of cherries into her mouth with great delicacy.
The cubs quickly learned her trick and simply snacked on the juicy cherries from ground level. I watched those three bears for an hour, learning much about pro-berry picking.
You can use her tricks, bending the bushes down to easy-picking level, but be careful not to snap them by overdoing the bending. We’ll all need those bushes next year.
I generally pick into a small basket or pail of no more than a gallon in capacity. This is easy to handle and still light when full. When it’s full, I dump it into a larger pail or basket, safely waiting in the truck.
One reason that I pick into a small basket is because I’ve used larger baskets, then dumped the whole shooting match on the ground. Since then, I don’t put all my cherries in one basket. This is especially important when your children go harvesting with you. They want to help but can get a little excited, and spills are frequent.
I hold my basket directly under a bunch and strip the whole bunch into it (like milking a cow). Picking one cherry at a time is extremely time-consuming as they are smaller than wild grapes.
Extracting the juice
The most common use for chokecherries is jelly. This is followed by wine-making. As we are a family of non-drinkers, I don’t do this, but I do make a lot of jelly. To do either, you will need to extract the juice from the chokecherries. Be advised that although the cherries are juicy, they actually produce a small amount of juice. Three gallons of cherries will give about 4-5 cups of juice.
The usual procedure is to add ½ cup of water to the chokecherries in a large kettle and simmer for ten minutes. I help this out a bit by mooshing the cherries with my hands, squashing as many as I can to release more juice. The skin will hold a lot of juice in, even when simmered. As the cherries heat, I continue mooshing. Watch it, as the water/juice will get hot quickly and can burn you.
When the batch is too hot to handle, constantly stir with a wooden spoon. You don’t want it to scorch, which it can quickly do, ruining the whole batch.
To extract the juice, dampen three layers of cheesecloth or a clean old sheet about 20″ square. Lay the dampened cloth in a colander in a large bowl, then pour the cherries and juice out into it. Carefully tie up this improvised jelly bag with a strong cord, then hang it on a sturdy nail just above the bowl. Remove the colander.
This must drip overnight. In the morning, gently squeeze the bag and again let it drip for an hour. You can tweak it a bit more by placing a weight on top of the bag, in a colander over a bowl. This will result in slightly cloudy jelly, but you’ll get more juice.
If you are making jelly or wine, your juice is now ready to proceed. If you’re in a great hurry or want to harvest tons more chokecherries, you can simply can the juice. I do it all the time. We even use the juice, mixed with other juices, such as apple and pear and add some honey as a natural alternative to Kool-Aid. The chokecherry juice is strong, so a little goes a long way, and it tastes great.
When you want to get more “harvest” out of your chokecherries, you can squish the warm cherries through a sieve. This lets you make jam and preserves. It’s also how some Indian tribes processed the cherries to make pemmican and other dried cakes to use for winter. Others ground whole cherries. I’m a little leery of this as the pits contain a toxin related to cyanide.
It takes quite a while to mash the cherries and juice through a sieve, but it’s worth it, as you will get more to work with.
Here’s a recipe for chokecherry jelly that is quite fool-proof.
- 5 cups juice
- 1 package Fruit Pectin
- 3 cups sugar
You may add ½ cup water or apple juice to get exact measure (no more).
- Add 1 package of Fruit Pectin to juice in an eight-quart saucepan or pot, stirring well.
- Heat on high, constantly stirring, until it comes to a full boil.
- Stir in sugar, mixing well.
- Bring to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly. Boil exactly one minute, stirring constantly.
- Remove from heat. Skim off foam, if desired.
- Fill hot, sterilized jars quickly, wipe off rims, and seal. Process immediately in a hot water bath, which covers entire jars for five minutes. For altitudes above 1,000′, check your canning book for directions.
You can use the chokecherry pulp, which you have sieved, as above in any sour cherry recipe for jams or preserves. I use this native cherry jam as “plum sauce” for meats and an addition to many oriental dishes calling for that certain sweet-sour combination. I even plop a tablespoonful into a stir-fry with a teaspoon of chili paste for a uniquely robust flavor.
Dehydrated chokecherry pulp
Chokecherry pulp dehydrates very well, making an “ugly” but useful fruit leather. I often mix sugar with it to taste, then dehydrate to harder than leather. When I want to use it, I can break off small pieces to rehydrate. One of our favorite uses is rehydrated tiny bits of chokecherry pulp in fresh, steaming homemade muffins. They also work well in pancakes, waffles, breakfast cakes, etc.
Indians and mountain men pounded dehydrated chokecherry pulp with smoked jerky and enough rendered fat to hold it together, making pemmican, the original “trail-mix,” which was actually small, thin cakes.
This provided a filling, high-energy food that kept well on the trail. This is a long way from the so-called pemmican available today in plastic-wrapped strips—no fruit, no fat (calories for hard traveling in cold weather), and “mystery meat.”
If you don’t already make chokecherry gathering part of your family’s wild harvesting, I hope you will next season. Remember to watch for those beautiful clusters of white blossoms in the springtime, calling you to enjoy their fall bounty. There’s plenty for all of us.
This article was submitted by Amanda Peters.
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