For the last month, I’ve been pining away for some wild chokecherry shrubs to harvest and make chokecherry jelly. Last year it seemed like everywhere we went, we spotted chokecherry shrubs along the road. They were all loaded down with ripe chokecherries just calling my name to harvest them. I figured that as often as we saw them on private property, it wouldn’t be that hard to find them on public lands. Well I was wrong! Last year we found one medium size chokecherry shrub to harvest and that was it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ungrateful for that one solo shrub, but I’m disappointed we didn’t find more considering the gazillions of chokecherries we saw on private lands!
Last year we harvested enough chokecherries to make about half a dozen half pint jars of chokecherry jelly. Of all the jams and jellies I made last year, chokecherry was definitely my favorite. I even thought it was more delicious than our honey sweetened strawberry jam which used to be my favorite for years so this is a big deal! It turned out a beautiful rosy purple color. With the added honey to sweeten up the tartness that chokecherries are known for. it made the most delicious jelly (here’s our recipe for chokecherry jelly). I also read an article this winter that stated chokecherries are a natural source of vitamin C just like the elderberries we forage. This spring I promised myself I would find more wild chokecherries to harvest this season!
Like most wild edible berries, once you learn how to identify the plant it is quite easy to spot them all over. Chokecherry is a tall shrub with grayish to reddish colored bark with raised lines. The flowers are a creamy white color and hang in clusters best described by my wild edibles book as “forming bottlebrush like clusters” that are about 3″-6″ long.
The berries often look almost black from a distance but when you view them up close you can see they have a deep reddish purple color. The berries grow in a “bottlebrush” like cluster just like the flowers do. When I was first learning to identify chokecherries and elderberries, the formations of the berries on the stems was the easiest way for me to tell them apart (you can read more about identifying and foraging for elderberries in this post).
After last year’s chokecherry search, I made a point this spring to seek out chokecherries in flower when we went adventuring in the mountains. I even made notes on a piece of scrap paper to write down where the chokecherry shrubs were so we could easily go back to harvest them later in the summer.
Then low and behold, last week we went on an evening drive in the mountains to explore a new area and spotted numerous chokecherry shrubs loaded down with deep red berries right along the dirt road on public lands! I was ecstatic! The only downside was that we didn’t have any berry buckets or bags with us to harvest any. We decided to drive back up there later in the week to harvest chokecherries and be more prepared with our berry picking gear!
I mentioned in the post on foraging for huckleberries that we invested in some berry rakes (you can find them here) a couple years ago. They work good for huckleberries but work even better for the chokecherries which are a little bigger and more firm than a huckleberry. It was amazing how many chokecherries we could harvest in a short amount of time with one of these handy gadgets!
I read in this book, my favorite wild edibles book, that chokecherries become sweeter after the first frost. When we harvested chokecherries last year it was just after the first frost. Last year I nibbled the flesh of the chokecherry when we were picking them and was pleasantly surprised by the taste. It wasn’t bitter at all and definitely didn’t make my mouth pucker like I’ve heard chokecherries can do (hence their name!). This year we picked chokecherries before the frost and they definitely have a bit more of a tart flavor than last year’s pickings. That just means I’ll have to add a little more honey to this year’s batch of chokecherry jelly!
My wild edibles book also notes that “All parts of the chokecherry (except the flesh of the fruit) contain the poison hydrocyanic acid.” By drying or cooking the chokecherry, the cyanide is destroyed. We don’t eat the chokecherries raw and I make a jelly with them instead of a jam. A jelly uses just the juice of the berries. When harvesting chokecherries with Little A, she knows not to eat them and I keep a close eye on her anytime we’re foraging. She helped us pick chokecherries last year and this year, although most of the chokecherries are up on high branches out of the reach of a little three year old!
Medicinal Uses for Chokecherry
For mother’s day this year, my husband gifted me this new medicinal plant book by Michael Moore. It was recommended by a local herbalist I took a class from last year. This book has a section on chokecherries, but it focuses on harvesting the bark for medicinal purposes and doesn’t focus much on the berries. It states that chokecherry bark can be used medicinally to treat and help soothe a cough. In the fall when we’re not at the height of gardening, foraging and canning season I hope to harvest some chokecherry bark and try out some of the medicinal recipes in my new book!
I just finished a big batch of my favorite chokecherry jelly. Here’s the recipe so you can make some too!