What Is a Chokecherry?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Chokecherry refers to the fruit of 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. They’re often called Virginia bird cherries, since birds delight in eating them, but unless they are ripe, wild chokecherries often taste quite bitter and sour to humans.

Chokecherries often harbor tent caterpillars.
Chokecherries often harbor tent caterpillars.

Some varieties of chokecherries are more palatable than others, and the cultivated chokecherry is described as having a mildly sweet, cherry taste. With the addition of sugar, chokecherries are often used to make jam, syrup, and fruit pies. Chokecherry wine is somewhat comparable to wine made from grapes. The chokecherry is the state fruit of North Dakota.

Chokecherry seeds and leaves, especially when wilted, are poisonous to horses.
Chokecherry seeds and leaves, especially when wilted, are poisonous to horses.

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 other 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.

Chokecherries are edible to humans, although they can sometimes be sour. Chokecherries are often used in pies, jams, jellies, and sauces.
Chokecherries are edible to humans, although they can sometimes be sour. Chokecherries are often used in pies, jams, jellies, and sauces.

Chokecherries may also be grown 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.

Some varieties of chokecherries may be used to make wine.
Some varieties of chokecherries may be used to make wine.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

anon1002011

You can use chokecherries for jelly, etc

anon928817

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

I've eaten chokecherries since I was a little kid. My parents eat them and my grandparents eat them. On the Canadian prairies, we've eaten them for years as raw, soups, muffins, jams, jellies and particularly - wine.

anon268902

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

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

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

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

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

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

anon38097

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

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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