Make Chokecherries a Part of Your Summer Jam

Clusters of chokecherries are ready for picking. Photo by Rachel Turiel

By Rachel Turiel –

Delicious chokecherry jelly adds summer flavor to a simple snack. Photo by Mona Neeley

Chokecherry preserves are a southwestern delicacy. The jellies, jams and syrups have a deep berry sweetness with a whisper of wild earth tang. The flavors are layered — sweet, then spiced, then nutty, then grassy — like geological strata or a fine wine. If the berries had a spokesperson, it would be a cultured debutante who ran off to the mountains to learn the crazy wisdom of the Earth.

Capturing that illusive, delicious taste is worth the effort. If you’ve ever made pints of chokecherry jelly, gleaming with a magenta shine, you know the feeling of pride that blooms when you line up your finished jars on your pantry shelf.

However, making chokecherry jelly is so time consuming that after you squeeze the last drop of bright fruit juice from your jelly bag, you begin to regard other popular jelly-making fruits — raspberries, blackberries, blueberries — as obscenely rudimentary.

Chokecherry recipes start with juice. Photo by Rachel Turiel

You cannot buy chokecherries at the store. You must roam the hillsides like a hungry black bear before landing under a chokecherry tree laden with accommodating fruit. But, those tiny purple orbs contain as much seed as flesh, and separating the two is like sneaking a lovey out from under a sleeping toddler. Case in point: 26 cups of berries equals 9 cups of finished jelly. Nine extremely precious cups.

But not to take part in the historical gathering of chokecherries that beckons every which way in Colorado’s late summer would be like attending a wedding and not jumping to your feet when the cover band thumps the first chords of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”

Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) are in the rose family, along with apples, cherries, apricots, pears and many other cherished, cultivated fruit trees. Chokecherries often have multiple trunks and their bark ranges from grey to red, marked with lenticels (horizontal pores through which gases are exchanged). The leaves are uniformly and mildly serrated, and oval with a pointed tip.

The writer’s kids run through blooming chokecherries. Photo by Rick Scibelli Jr.

They bloom in early spring in profuse racemes or clusters of tight white flowers, and then brighten Colorado slopes from August through September with drooping berries. The berries are ripe when the color is so dark purple they’re almost black. Fresh off the tree, their flavor is sweet with a hint of cotton balls inserted between your lips and gums. Astringent is the technical term. My children, whose taste buds are mysterious, confounding organs, eat them raw by the handful.

Chokecherries are typically considered shrubs, but if said shrub is lucky enough to grow along a waterway, it can become a 15-foot-tall tree, providing welcoming shade for a bedded deer or picnicking family. In Colorado, chokecherries grow at elevations of 5,000 to 10,000 feet, interspersed most commonly with scrub oak, ponderosa pine, piñon pine, juniper, cottonwoods and aspens. They are especially abundant along waterways and can be found in 47 out of our 64 Colorado counties. Chokecherries grow all over North America, except the far north and south, but, lucky us, the western berries are thought to be sweetest.

Chokecherries were the most important fruit crop in the diet of many Western Native American tribes, who pounded and dried the berries (including the protein- and fat-rich seed), making it with meat to make pemmican, a dried, portable and indispensable snack. It was such a valuable plant for the Ute tribe, they called it, simply, “berry.” According to Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel E. Moerman, chokecherry juice was given as a special drink to husbands and favored children of the Blackfoot tribe.

Chokecherries have high amounts of anthocyanins, a group of phytochemicals or flavonoids responsible for the purple color of the fruit. Anthocyanins have antioxidant and free-radical scavenging properties, and are also anti-inflammatory. Including anthocyanins in one’s diet decreases capillary permeability, protects the integrity of blood vessel walls, is membrane-strengthening and alters development of hormone-dependent disease (such as breast or ovarian cancer). Research trials have shown anthocyanins to markedly reduce tumor formation and cancer cell proliferation, and to improve night vision.

There’s no doubt that a pantry stocked with chokecherry preserves contributed to the food security of Colorado pioneer families. However, if you want to avoid muddling through what Katie O’Hara Barrett of O’Hara’s Jams and Jellies calls the most labor intensive jam in her repertoire of commercial fruit preserves, there are plenty of options to procure authentic Colorado chokecherry preserves.

The writer’s daughter squeezes the juice from chokecherries, a messy job. Photo by Rachel Turiel

These preserves are intrinsically special because companies can’t order a flat of domestically grown chokecherries to be shipped to their commercial kitchen any time of year. Just like the wild animals that rely on chokecherries, you must scour ditches and hillsides, creeks and alleys to procure this fruit that ripens in elevational succession.

O’Hara’s Jams and Jellies, in business for 24 years in Durango, purchases between 1,400 and 2,000 pounds of fresh, hand-picked chokecherries each season. “The berries come to us in bags, buckets, boxes,” Katie says. “One season we put an ad in the paper seeking berries, and now people just bring them to us every year. Our best picker is in his 70s.”

Katie, who owns the business with her husband Jim O’Hara Barrett, explains that despite having to “boil, boil, boil, then smush, smush, smush [the berries] all by hand,” it’s worth it. “It’s a local favorite and one of our top sellers. Plus, when we’re making chokecherry jelly and syrup, our kitchen just reeks of chokecherries.” And that, she maintains, is a good thing.

In autumn, Colorado black bears must consume 20,000 calories a day to achieve denning weight. Because of their abundance and close proximity to acorns, chokecherries are an ideal source of food for bears, who may eat 20 to 30 pounds of berries and acorns daily in the fall. According to Bryan Peterson of Bear Smart Durango, an organization that helps people and bears coexist, it takes 1,500 chokecherries to make a pound. That’s a whole lot of chokecherries.

Additional partakers of the chokecherry fruit are wild turkeys, grouse, raccoons, chipmunks, squirrels, skunks, foxes, coyotes and deer. Many birds seek the seed in fall, some of them spitting out the fruit flesh for the reward of the fat- and protein-rich seed. Nabbing the high berries that the rest of us can’t reach are evening grosbeaks, robins, thrushes, jays and woodpeckers.

It seems that every Native American tribe had its preferred medicinal use for the chokecherry. The Navajo made an infusion of fresh berries for stomachaches. The Blackfoot tribe drank berry juice for diarrhea and sore throats. Arikara women drank berry juice to stop postpartum hemorrhage. The Sioux placed poultices of dried roots in open wounds to stop bleeding.

The chokecherry was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia National Formulary from 1820–1970. And, in their journals, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark recorded that, while camped on the upper Missouri River, Captain Lewis developed abdominal cramps and fever. He made a tea from chokecherry twigs and fully recovered by the next day.

Debra Reuben, clinical herbalist and proprietor for 26 years at Durango’s Dancing Willow Herbs, relies on chokecherry for respiratory care. Reuben uses the inner bark as a cough suppressant, noting that not only does chokecherry help to loosen mucus so that it’s easier to expectorate, but it also calms coughs by soothing spasms of the smooth muscles involved in coughing. Furthermore, because chokecherry supports the nervous system, while quieting coughs it can also address anxiety caused by uncontrollable coughing.

Reuben makes chokecherry tinctures (plant constituents extracted in grain alcohol) for adults, and for children, syrups. Reuben points out that there is no need to cut a central tree trunk for medicine; small diameter branches or newly downed branches are useful. And even twigs contain the same bark medicine. And finally, because in spring the bark contains high levels of cyanide, which as summer progresses migrates into the pit, the optimal time to harvest chokecherry limbs is fall after the cherries become ripe.

Seeds and wilted leaves contain hydrocyanic acid. When the seeds are ground or pulverized an enzyme is released that breaks down the hydrocyanic acid making it toxic. The hydrocyanic acid is supposedly poisonous, although it’s indisputable that Native American tribes ate many seeds, as they would grind the berry whole to mix with meat and dry in “sun cakes” or pemmican. Wilted leaves have killed livestock, though deer, elk, bighorn sheep, moose and other ungulates eat the leaves with no problem.

According to the exhaustive tome Native American Ethnobotany, out of all native plants, the chokecherry tree rates second in having the greatest number of uses. This category of “other uses” is my favorite, as it begs the question: What was chokecherry not used for?

There is a certain poetry to the practical: For the Okanagan tribe, ripe berries indicated that salmon were coming up river to spawn. Also, the leaves were used as a green dye, the berries as a purplish dye. The branches were used for arrow shafts, and the trunks for bows. The sap was used to fasten arrowheads to shafts, the leaves as a poultice for cuts. Branches were used as digging sticks and as tipi stakes. And the berries were mixed with bear fat for painting pictographs.

My son’s godmother once told him that the letters he sent her were more valuable than gold. “Then if I give you letters, will you give me gold?” the 6-year old wondered.

“No, honey,” she said, “They’re so valuable you can’t put a price on them.”

This is exactly how I feel about the jars in my pantry packed with thick, magenta oceans of chokecherry jelly.

Rachel Turiel is a professional writer who has lived in La Plata County for the past 17 years. She shares her experiences on her blog