Wild cherries and chokecherries are widespread across North America. Some consider the chokecherry the most widely distributed tree on the continent. Their fruit are an important food source for many birds and animals, and were a staple fruit for Native Americans. Unfortunately, many consider these flavorful fruits poisonous.
Chokecherries and Wild Cherries
Chokecherries are the most widespread of native fruit trees. Their range spans the continent from east to west, as far north as Canada's tree line and all the way to the southern borders of the U.S. They grow as bushes or small trees, depending on the habitat, and usually favor well-watered areas near streams. They are more common in the Northern states, where they are often planted as an ornamental or for the sake of the birds they attract.
Like their cultivated descendants, wild cherries and chokecherries are stone fruit. Their seed is contained in a hard, nutlike shell in the fruit’s center. Like peaches, apricots and bitter almonds, chokecherry and wild cherry seeds are high in cyanide compounds called glycosides. The fruit are perfectly edible but discard the seeds. Cherry leaves and new growth are also high in glycosides and are frequently fatal to grazing livestock.
Ripeness and Flavor
Like cultivated sour cherries, wild cherries and chokecherries are naturally tart. They also have a noteworthy degree of astringency, a mouth-drying pucker similar to under-ripe persimmons. Do not harvest the fruit for culinary purposes until they are completely ripened or even overripe, turning deep purple without a hint of their original red. At this stage, the fruit of some bushes is sweet enough to be palatable raw, although that is uncommon.
Wild cherries and chokecherries were an important food source for Native Americans who dried them for a winter food supply and added them to pemmican. Today, they are more commonly used in jams and jellies, where cooking and sweetening bring their deep, rich, winelike flavor forward. The juice is also strained and cooked with sugar, making a tart and flavorful syrup for pancakes and waffles. These wild fruit are also used in pies, although removing the stony pits from the cherries is an exercise in patience.