The Chokecherry is a single species of bird cherry that is endemic to North America. The berries and flowers add an accent and fall colors of this plant are beautiful. In the past, Native peoples of North America used blueberry plant parts both for nourishment and medicinal purposes. This article will address the range, identification, food uses, medicinal uses, and warnings associated with choke cherries.
Scientific name: Prunus virginiana
Range: Endemic (native) to North America. Found everywhere except the Far North, desert, or Far South of North America (North-West Territories in Canada to Mexico)
Deciduous shrub or small tree, with smooth, grayish bark marked with horizontal slits. Leaves are oval in shape and (3-10cm) long, finely sharp-toothed. Creamy white flowers form in May to June. Produces hanging clusters of 6-8mm wide dark red to black berries. The fruit are about 1 cm diameter and are a deep, bright red in colour.
Choke cherries were among the most important berries for many tribes. They were collected after the first frost, because the cold made them sweeter. They were often dried or cooked, often used as an addition to stews. Today, chokecherries can be used to make jelly, syrup, sauce and wine. The raw cherries are sour and astringent, so they have to be cooked or dried before eating. The astringent flavour of the berries is what gives the choke cherry its name. After eating fresh berries, some people have a puckering or choking sensation. Chokecherries are very high in antioxidant pigment compounds, like anthocyanins. Research is being done at the University of Saskatchewan to find and create new cultivars to increase production and processing. The "goertz" cultivar has already been created; it is much less astringent in taste and thus quite palatable to eat.
Dried, powdered cherry flesh was taken to improve appetite and prevent diarrhoea. Interestingly, "choke" cherry tea was used to soothe coughs.
Crushed leaves or thin strips of bark can kill insects in an enclosed space because they contain the toxic hydrocyanic acid. Some species of caterpillars rely on chokecherry leaves for food.
All parts of the chokecherry, except for the flesh of the fruit, contain poisonous hydrocyanic acid. Children have died after eating the berries without removing the pits. Cooking or drying destroys the toxins. The leaves and twigs are not only poisonous to humans, but also animals such as dogs. Remember that this article is no way is intended to offer medical advice; it is merely an interesting resource for those who would like to become more familiar with some useful plants. Chokecherry is also toxic to horses, especially after the leaves have wilted because this releases cyanide. As little as 5 kilograms of foliage can be fatal.