Chokecherry is a common name used for many species of tart wild cherries that grow throughout the world. Properly, they are members of the Prunus genus.
While the name of chokecherry can be applied to nearly any tart species of wild cherry, in America, the name is generally used for only a few species of wild cherry that share many similarities, and these are the types we will look at here.
Chokecherries range over most of Southern Canada and Northern United States, with some species growing in isolated areas in nearly every state, especially those with cool or cold wintertime temperatures. It is common in mountainous areas.
In general appearance, chokecherries normally grow as a large bush or, less often, as a small tree. However some specimens can reach thirty feet in height, though the trunk is rarely more than a foot in thickness. The bark is brown to grayish and is often flaky or shallowly grooved at the base.
The leaves are medium to dark green, and look very much like those of other cherry species.
The white to slightly pinkish blossoms appear in late spring, borne on small branches that have no leaves, giving them a clustered appearance. Blooms are sweet scented and attractive to bees.
The fruit clusters ripen in late summer to early fall, and tend to be mostly pit. Ripe chokecherries are usually dark red or crimson. The shallow flesh, however, is very high in pectin.
Chokecherries have some wonderful uses, however proper species identification is very important as some species contain toxins that can poison people and pets, particularly dogs.
One use of chokecherries is directly related to the high pectin content of the cherries. The juice from the ripe cherries can be added to fruit that is low in pectin, to aid in the making of jelly. The tartness usually enhances the mixed jelly, since low pectin fruits are often quite sweet, which is a perfect compliment to the sour of the cherries.
Chokecherry fruit is also used extensively for flavoring and for the aroma. They give the 'wild cherry' flavor to beverages, extracts, and pastries. They also are the foundation for the bouquet of wild cherry scented candles and potpourris.
The chipped wood is one of the best for smoking meats, and is often in demand locally. The wood can be chipped and allowed to dry, then can be soaked in water for an hour, and then added to the smoker. Using the wood in this way, it can last for several years.
The most important use of chokecherry, though, is medicinal. Chokecherry is especially good as a soothing expectorant, when either taken as a mild tea or when breathed in vapor form. Many of the most well known wild cherry cough drops and syrups actually contain chokecherry extracts, since the complex substances have not been duplicated or improved upon by man.
Chokecherries are not difficult to identify, though species identification is a bit more difficult. However, they have uses that are so good that the effort to properly identify them is well worth the effort.
They are hardy and live in sometimes-poor ground. They are easy to find and collect since cherry clusters can be picked in groups. They have both practical and medicinal uses.
Next time you drink some cherry flavored cough medicine, or pop the top of a wild cherry soft drink, think about this often overlooked but attractive fruit tree.