As the day gets shorter and the air turns cool and crisp chokecherries come into season. Now, during the last few months of September chokecherries are turning black on their vines; heavy with ripeness just waiting to be picked. The Chokecherry, or Prunus virginiana, is the name given to several wild species of tart cherries that grow wild throughout most parts of North America. Some botanists believe that the chokecherry has the widest range of any North American wild plant species. The plant grows wild from central Canada and Alaska south to Georgia and west to the deserts of Arizona. Some fruit collectors claim that desert chokecherries or chokecherries found in more arrid climates are sweeter than their eastern cousins. Chokecherries are not found in Florida or in extreme northern parts of North America.
There are two varieties of chokecherries found in North America, the eastern variety found east of the Mississippi River and the western variety found west through the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The species may overlap in regions near the Mississippi River. Chokecherry trees are small and shrub-like. On average they grow to 5-18 feet tall. The thin bark of a chokecherry tree is light gray to dark brown and is very smooth. Oval, serrated leaves 1 ½ to 2 ½ inches long grow alternately on thin stems. Small, delicate, five petal bottlebrush clustered flowers bloom in late spring. The fruit of the chokecherry grows in clusters of 8-20 fruits. Chokecherries are smaller than sour cherries growing only to a few centimeters in diameter. Cherries ripen to a deep purple or black. Some chokecherry eaters insist that the fruit tastes sweeter when it is overripe.
Fruit collectors beware! The chokecherry plant resembles the common buckthorn which is poisonous. However; several distinctions can be made between the two. The common buckthorn has smooth edged leaves and the tree itself is covered with thorns. The chokecherry has no thorns. Fruit collectors should never eat fruit unless they are sure of what they have collected.
Many fruit collectors ignore the chokecherry because of its name, but the fruit is delicious, resembling its North American cousin, the sour cherry but chokecherries may be used in a variety of recipes. Wines, jellies and jams, pies, tarts, and syrups may all be made from chokecherries. Dried chokecherries are sweeter than ripe raw chokecherries and they can be eaten as so or baked into cookies and breads. Native North Americans often used the boiled bark from the chokecherry tree to cure digestive ailments. Chokecherry fruits have antioxidant qualities. Bears, deer, raccoons, mice, birds and many other wild animals often feed off of chokecherry fruits and its seeds.
If you decide that you may want to collect chokecherries now is the perfect time. They are at their peak ripeness, or they are overripe, by mid to late September. The trees thrive on disturbance and are often found growing in dense, shrubby thickets. Chokecherries are often one of the first plant species to start reclaiming the land after a wildfire. Chokecherry plants need bright sun in order to grow their fruits and can be found growing wild in open, sunny forests or along riverbeds beside marshmallows and cattails.
Chokecherry Jelly Recipe
1 lb chokecherries, washed and seeded
1 C water
4 ½ C sugar
1 package fruit pectin
cheesecloth or metal strainer
1 t almond extract
Boil chokecherries in one cup of water until soft and fruit starts to come out of its shell. Remove fruit from heat and strain juice through a cheesecloth or metal strainer so that only the shells remain. Measure 2 1/2 cups of juice. Place 2 1/2 cups of choke cherry juice, one teaspoon almond extract, and one package fruit pectin in large kettle and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Add 4 1/2 cups of sugar and mix well. Bring mixture to a rolling boil (one that cannot be stirred down). Continue rolling boil for three minutes. Remove from heat. Skim foam off the top and pour mixture into sterilized jelly jars.