Prunus virginiana – Chokecherry

ChokecherryPrunus virginiana

Prunus = proo-nus, from the Latin name for plum tree;

virginiana = “of Virginia”;

Identification: These shrubs or small trees grow up to 8 m tall. White flowers are borne in racemes or umbel-like clusters. The leaves are alternate, simple and serrated and it has dark brown bark. The leaves are elliptic to obovate and the fruit is reddish-purple or black.

Distribution & Habitat: These cherries are common in dry woods, thickets and some open woods.

An Indian Girl`s Game
While out picking chokecherries, Blackfoot Indian girls would often play a little game. All of the girls would stand in a circle. Each one had to put a chokecherry in her mouth. The first one to giggle or make a sour face was disqualified, with her cherries being forfeited into the middle. Another round started with each remaining girl sticking another chokecherry in her mouth. This was repeated until one girl won all the cherries.

Preparation & Uses: The bitter astringent taste of chokecherry needs little commentary for those who have sampled the cherry as children. The fruit can be eaten raw as some Indians manage to do but it is not all that tasty. The dried fruit does taste quite good though, and can be stored for winter. Besides drying whole, the ripened fruit can be ground up, seed and all, then dried. This can later be soaked when needed and used as a sauce or an addition to soups. Ground, dried cherries were often stored in cakes.

Some Indians would mix the cherries with meat and dry it to make their pemmican. One shouldn’t eat too many dried, uncooked cherries as they might cause nausea. Chokecherries make good jellies and wine. If making jelly, pectin should be added. Follow any jelly recipe. The juice of chokecherries is refreshing if mixed with water and sugar.

Chokecherry bark is classified by many Indians as one of their most valued herbs. The bark is listed as bitter, astringent, narcotic, stimulant, mild tonic, sedative and pectoral. Both hot and cold water are used as solvents. All the bark is useful, but the inner bark of the roots is reported to be the best. The bark was used to relieve headache and for “heart trouble” by the Bella Coola people. Herbalists have used it for intermittent fever, worms, dyspepsia, consumption, hectic fever, the congestion of phlegm and bronchitis. The Penobscot Indians used an infusion of the bark for coughs and lung troubles. The Potawatomis infused the bark and used it for an eyewash and the berries as a tonic. Blackfoot Indians infused the cambium of chokecherry and saskatoon berry and used the result as a purging agent. The berries were used to treat diarrhea and sore throats. Chokecherry contains small amounts of malic acid and hydrocyanic acid. The bark has been listed in the U.S. Dispensatory since 1820.

Chokecherry wood is very hard and not easily burned. It makes good forked sticks for carrying hot rocks to sweat lodges, lifting hot coals out of the fire for smudges and other such uses. It was used for digging sticks, tent pegs, back rests and household tools.

Caution: The leaves are considered poisonous because of the high quantities of hydrocyanic acid.