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What is a Chokecherry?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 15 August 2014
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Chokecherry refers to the fruit and the tree Prunus Virginiana, which grows in abundance in North America. These tiny cherries, generally about .4 inches (1 cm) in diameter when fully grown are relatives to the black cherry. Unlike their edible relatives, chokecherries are generally not edible, at least for humans. They’re often called bird cherries, since birds delight in eating them, but for people, the high acid content makes the chokecherry extremely sour, inspiring the name. You just might “choke” if you pop one of these bright red wild fruits into your mouth.

You can find both Eastern and Western varieties of the chokecherry, and though they may attract birds, they’re often viewed as the bane of farmers, particularly those who grow fruit trees. Chokecherries tend to harbor pests like tent caterpillars, which, if they migrate to more edible fruit trees, can destroy crops. People who raise horses have to be certain that there are no chokecherries nearby, since the foliage is poisonous to horses, especially when the leaves are wilted. The wilting process causes the leaves to emit large amounts of cyanide, giving them a sweet flavor attractive to horses. If a horse eats about 10-11 pounds (about 5 kg) of wilted leaves, it can easily become poisoned.

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Though wild chokecherries are generally considered inedible to humans, there has been some cultivation of the tree to produce an edible chokecherry. This has resulted in several varietals that you can eat, though the fruit remains relatively small. Chokecherry wine is somewhat comparable to wine made from grapes, and interest has surged in growing chokecherries in order to make jam and syrup. The cultivated chokecherry is described as having a mildly sweet, cherry taste.

Chokecherries may be grown not so much for their taste or for their fruit, but for their ornamental appeal. Wild cherry blossoms are some of the prettiest, and the trees produce them in abundance. If you do decide to grow chokecherries, you should know that they’re not a great choice if you have any kind of pets or young children. Not only leaves, but also bark, and flower are poisonous as well. Though poisoning cases with the chokecherry are rare, there is still a risk.

You should be aware that the chokecherry's pit, like the pits of peaches and nectarines, release cyanide when cooked. The cherries should be pitted prior to use so the pits aren’t accidentally consumed. Once pits are removed, chokecherries are safe to eat, and there are a variety of recipes springing up to capture their flavor. Among them you’ll find recipes for chokecherry jam, pie, smoothies, syrup, wine and liqueur.

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Discuss this Article

anon928817
Post 15

Whoever wrote this article really has no personal knowledge of the fruit. It is an extremely common and flavorful jelly, syrup and pie fruit in the areas where it grows. Still one of my favorite jellies.

anon353881
Post 14

I've eaten chokecherries since I was a little kid. My parents eat them and my grandparents eat them. I don't know what type of berry you're talking about but on the Canadian prairies, we've eaten them for years as raw, soups, muffins, jams, jellies and particularly - wine.

anon268902
Post 13

My friend told me about gathering chokecherries with his now late grandma, she always carried a 44. He asked why, and she told him for the bears!

anon231901
Post 12

I have been eating wild choke cherries all my life and I have yet to get sick off them. If you wait for the first frost, the berries turn very sweet.

anon97400
Post 9

Its the leaf that's has the problem not the fruit. When the leaf starts to turn is after it has been either separated from the tree or the branch it's on.

So feel free to eat the fruit but not the leaf.

anon85706
Post 8

Chokecherry leaves are quite poisonous to livestock, but they usually avoid them. My neighbor lost several young goats after they ate chokecherry leaves that were downed by hail. It is rare, but you should be aware of the risk.

anon78895
Post 6

We have two bushes in our yard, and I agree with the above comments. I make syrup, and jelly, nary a problem or poisoning! Have two children and a hubby who eat them right off the bush, never even experienced a stomach ache.

anon43183
Post 5

In addition, I've pastured all kinds of livestock where they had access to chokecherries. Nary a problem.

anon38097
Post 3

we bought some chokecherry jelly at a welcome center in Kansas recently and it was delicious. Didn't know they were used for jelly 7-23-09

anon5698
Post 2

American Indians have reported eating chokecherries for many, many years. They are still collected and eaten by tribal members all across the country. Not only do Native Americans eat the berries after cooking them, but they eat them fresh off the plant as well.

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