I’ll admit the name “chokecherry” doesn’t exactly get your mouth watering. Anything with “choke” in the name sounds like trouble. The other common names bitter berry and bird cherry aren’t any more appetizing, but chokecherries are not only edible, they’re delicious. The berries can be a bit astringent right off the bush, but that astringency fades away with the proper preparation.
Chokecherries were a staple of the Native American diet, and are perfect for jelly, fruit leather and homemade wine.
Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) are in the stone fruit family, along with cherries and plums. Unlike wild pin cherries, which produce individual fruits to be spread by birds, chokecherries produce large fruit clusters for easy picking by mammalian hands.
Chokecherries have evolved alongside small mammals, and they’re hoping to be picked by the handful. Dexterous mammals like raccoons then carefully strip the flavorful fruit away from the toxic seeds.
Where to Find Chokecherries
The berries grow wild on small tree-like shrubs, often along woods edges or roadsides. They need full sun to thrive, so you won’t find them deep in the woods. In early August, Vermont roadsides are dotted with bushes showcasing their bright red fruit. The fruit won’t be ripe until they take on a deeper color, but this bright red fruit is easy to spot on a casual drive.
Once you see the first bright red berries, take a walk or drive around your neighborhood. It’s easy to spot chokecherries right at the edge of the woods or in unmowed medians. Be patient though, these bright red berries aren’t ready yet! They’re too bitter at this stage, but once they’re fully ripe, chokecherries are harder to spot. Note their location, and check back a week or two later.
In most locations, chokecherry season is Mid-August to early September. If you pick unripe fruit, you’re not doing the plant or yourself any favors. Unripe chokecherries taste horrible, and I’d venture to guess foragers that hate chokecherries just haven’t picked them when they’re ripe.
The two main distinguishing features of chokecherries are that they grow in bunches and they have a single large seed. Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is listed as a “toxic look alike” but once you’ve seen both shrubs, it’s obvious which is which. Buckthorn fruit does not grow in fruit clusters, though the fruit do tend to cluster together on the main branch. It also has several small seeds within each fruit. Buckthorn bushes also have lost of intensely sharp thorns that are often several inches long, while chokecherry bushes are completely thornless.
The fruit of the chokecherry plant is small and round and hangs in easy to pick clusters off the plant. They start out a light green color, and then progress through yellow, to bright red and then finally a deep red when ripe. Some plants make it all the way to a nearly black color before the animals get to them, but around here the bushes are picked clean by raccoons by the time they reach a deep plum red.
The tiny handful is the proud haul of my 3-year-old daughter, every single berry off a chokecherry bush that was covered with fruit just a few days before. These are the only chokecherries the raccoons left, and they were sweet and pleasant. In areas with fewer predators, they may ripen to a deeper color, but we’re happy with these around here.
Inside each chokecherry fruit is a relatively large seed. I would estimate that the seed takes up somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the volume of the fruit. The seeds are toxic, and they can spoil a chokecherry jelly if they’re left in too long. Generally, chokecherries are boiled for a short time until the fruit falls from the seed. The seeds are then filtered out through a colander as soon as the fruit is loose.
If you want to plant chokecherry seeds, save some aside and don’t cook them. Chokecherry seeds require a period of cold dormancy before they’ll sprout, and they need to be stored in the fridge or freezer for 3 months before planting. In the wild, they grow in zones 2 to 7. If you get seeds and manually cold stratify them, the plants can thrive just about anywhere, even very hot climates. Store the berries, or just the seeds once you’ve eaten the raw fruit in the freezer over the winter months and plant the following spring.
The leaves of chokecherry plants vary in size from about 2 to 4 inches. Like most stone fruits, they’re long and oval shaped and come to a point at the end. The edges have small serrations, and the leaves themselves come out alternately from the stem.
The bark of the chokecherry plant has small raised dimples, like many types of cherry. They’re much less pronounced than the dimples on the sour cherries I grow in my yard or the other forms of wild cherry found locally.
Are Chokecherries Toxic?
Chokecherry fruit is definitely edible and not toxic. The seeds are a bit tricky though. Chokecherry seeds contain a cyanide compound, like apple seeds, and they can be toxic if eaten raw in large quantities. That said, the traditional Native American way of preparing chokecherries involves pounding the whole fruit and seed and drying it in the sun.
There’s a theory that the toxins in the seeds are denatured by sun drying, and that allowed the native American people to digest the nutrients in both the fruit and seeds. Chokecherry seeds contain significant amounts of oil and protein, and it’s a shame to throw away all those nutrients. Modern science hasn’t confirmed that sun drying renders the seeds safe to eat. Obviously, use your best judgment.
Other parts of the chokecherry plant, including leaves, stems, and bark are toxic to animal life and can kill grazing animals if eaten in quantity.
How to Use Chokecherries
If you’ve timed it right, and beaten the raccoons to the chokecherries, you now have buckets of fruit. What on earth do you do with chokecherries?
Honestly, I think they taste pretty decent fresh. If the chokecherries you harvested are unpalatably bitter, they weren’t ripe. Some varieties ripen at a deep red, and others need to be nearly black before their ripe. Others need to turn nearly black and stay that way for a week or two before they’re ripe on the bush. Give them a try right off the bush and be sure they’re ripe before you harvest.
If they’re fully ripe, they’re quite sweet with only the tiniest hints of astringency. They’re better than wild plums in my book and often better (and more dependably tasty) than most wild apples we find around here. My 3-year-old foraging assistant loved them, but these days palates are used to super sweet supermarket fruit.
Storing the chokecherry harvest for 2-3 days in the refrigerator will increase their sweetness and improve their flavor as well. There’s something about the astringent compounds that mellow after harvest, but they’ll spoil quickly out of the fridge.
Chokecherry Fruit Leather
Samuel Thayer, the author of A Forager’s Harvest says that he prepares chokecherries raw and without sugar by storing them in the refrigerator, and then turning the fruit into fruit leather:
“Almost all of the chokecherries that I eat are in the form of dried fruit leather. This is convenient, delicious and healthy since it is unadulterated by the addition of sugar. The secret to making really good chokecherry leather is to pick very ripe cherries and then let them sit in the refrigerator for a day or two before straining. This aging facilitates some chemical change that significantly reduces the astringency of the fruit’s pulp.”
He extracts the pulp from the seeds without cooking by using a food strainer with the tension spring removed. I’ve tried with the tension spring left in, and it clogs the whole thing into a mess, so be sure to remove the tension spring.
Most people prefer to heavily sweeten chokecherries, and they’re most commonly made into a chokecherry jelly. Simply cook the fruit in a bit of water until the fruit pulp falls away from the seeds. Add in sugar and a bit of pectin and can it up.
Recipes vary widely in sugar content, and I think it has a lot to do with the flavor of the chokecherries harvested. Some are much sweeter than others, so it’s hard to give a definite amount. Looking at chokecherry jelly recipes from writers across the country, they generally use 1/2 to 1 cup of sugar for every pound of freshly picked berries. Others didn’t weight the fruit but measured the extracted juice once it was cooked off the pits. They used between 1/4 and 1/2 cup of sugar for each cup of chokecherry juice.
Most recipes also add around 1 tablespoon of lemon juice for each cup of chokecherry juice.
Chokecherry wine combines the fruit with sugar, and the natural astringency of chokecherries works well in a fruit wine. The juice can be extracted in the same way you would for chokecherry jelly, or you can muddle the chokecherries in a little bit of sugar like I did with this rhubarb wine. The sugar pulls the juice from the fruit, but in the case of chokecherries, don’t leave the pits in there too long or it’ll flavor the finished wine.
A one-gallon recipe for chokecherry wine uses 2-3 pounds of chokecherries plus 2-3 pounds of sugar. You’ll also need an acid and tannin source. I’d suggest 2 tbsp lemon juice and 1 cup strongly brewed black tea for acid and tannin, but there are plenty of other options. You can read more about making small-batch wines and how to achieve the right balance in this guide to small batch winemaking.
Dolores B Kuhlemeyer
If the birds are picking the chokecherries off the tree, is that a sign that the fruit is ripe enough to make jelly?
As soon as the animals start picking them, they won’t last long. I just went to harvest the bushes I’d been watching all year, checked them earlier in the week and decided they needed a few more days…my mistake. Everyone was pulled when I went back this weekend. It’s hard to find a bush where the animals don’t harvest them all before they’re fully ripe. Around here, I’ve found a few lone bushes along the roadside that got fully black this year…but most years I harvest them a bit underripe and then allow them to ripen about a week on the counter.
I tried to make something out of my chokecherry harvest for the first time; I’m wondering if I didn’t use enough sugar. The syrup/loose jelly mixture I got from it still has a slight astringent/pucker aftertaste. My question is this normal for chokecherries? Can I get rid of that pucker by adding more sugar next time? Or will all chokecherry products still have that hint of astringent taste no matter how much sugar you add? Great read btw!
I’d guess you harvested them a bit early? Were they all the way black (or really close to it)?
I made chokecherry jam and jelly this year, no pectin added just a bit of lemon juice and using a citrus seed pectin technique. The jelly wasn’t bitter at all, and I used 2 cups sugar to 3 cups juice, along with the juice of a lemon. The jam, with the skins pulverized into it and just the seeds filtered out was quite bitter.
One thing I’d suggest is to make sure you don’t press the chokecherries in the jelly bag, since more of the bitter is in the skins. I used a steam juicer, so no issue there.
Joan E,. Johnston
Can I freeze juice (minus sugar) and make wine at a later date?
Thanks for the mention of steam juicers! They are wonderful for fruits with lots of seeds or strongly sour skins. I steam juiced small wild type plums. For 6 quarts of very flavorful juice I only added 2 cups of sugar and some salt, which helps mellow the sour. The juice is still too sour to to drink straight but can be mixed in drinks our used in jello salads with milder fruit. I like it over ice cream. Steam juicing, I think, cuts the sour in half without losing flavor.
Thanks for the tips. Steam juicing is the way to go, for sure!
thank you for the best information I have found about astringency in choke cherries. that is what got me to your site
You’re welcome. I’m so glad you’re here, Betty!
If you have your eye on a brush that you’re hoping will ripen a bit more, buy a couple of those netting from the dollar store and cover the bush, tying it together at the stem. I do this with my Saskatoons in the yard, as well as the sunflowers (birds and squirrels).
My chokecherries are 2 big trees and one bush. Only the birds and I eat them, so there is plenty to go around, and no trouble waiting until they are fully ripe : )
Yes, netting can definitely be a great option.
Dee Dee Crowe
I actually came to your site hoping to find out if the blossoms are edible. I wanted to put some of the flowers in my salad, like I do with dandelion heads (and leaves) as well as my rose petals, when they are in season.
I don’t believe so. From what I have found in my research, all parts of the tree with the exception of the cherry flesh contain hydrocyanic acid which is poisonous.
I’ve not read of anyone making chokecherry syrup. I grew up in MT and my grandmother and mother made a fabulous syrup that was most often served with buckwheat Pancakes. I remember the process was similar to what’s been described for Jelly making, i.e., cooking the berries and straining out the seeds, but I don’t know what happened next. The syrup was not overly sweet, and had a bit of a sour kick to it, as I recall, but so flavorful and delicious with pancakes of any kind, especially those made with buckwheat flour.
We just happen to have a whole post about chokecherry syrup right here. https://practicalselfreliance.com/chokecherry-syrup/
Because of the Chokecherries medicinal properties, is it possible to create a tincture (?) using vodka? If so, have you ever done this or how should it be done? I read on a different site where chokecherries have medicinal uses.
Yes, you can create a tincture, but I’m not sure if you should use the pits in the tincture as I don’t think the alcohol would denature their toxic compounds. If you do, I’d do it by juicing the fruit and then preserving with alcohol. That said, I’m not really sure if the fruit juice is medicinal in that way?
I’d look into what parts of the plant are medicinal. I’ve read things that say the berries are beneficial, but only if eaten in the traditional way (ie. the pounded and then sun-dried chokecherry patties), since the pits are the source of the medicine at least according to that source (can’t find it now).
Other sources use the bark for cough medicine, in place of black cherry bark. In that case, you wouldn’t be tincturing the fruit, but instead the bark.
Anyhow, think about what you’re trying to get out of it and make sure a tincture is the right preparation for the benefits you seek. I don’t know all that much about the benefits of chokecherry medically, so I can’t really advise you here.
I love reading your information. But I wish you could make a printable page with just the main pertinent information. Then I could put it in my herbal folder. Never know when the internet will not be here… Just a thought.
Thanks for that suggestion. If I find an article that I want to keep that isn’t printable then I will often copy and paste the information that I want into a word document and then either save it or print it.
I froze my harvest from last year as whole fruit (seeds intact). Do you think this was a mistake leaving the seeds in? Or can I thaw and proceed with any of your chokecherry recipes?
I think you’ll be fine to thaw and proceed.
Thanks! I’ll give it a try. I’m leaning towards a gallon of wine
You’re very welcome.
Here’s another way to use chokecherries….syrup. Delicious on pancakes, waffles, french toast and vanilla ice cream! MMMMMM!
Yes! So yummy!