About Chokecherries, and Making Jelly and Cough Syrup

choke cherries or wild cherries Common choke cherry – picture by Rex Trulove



Choke cherries are shrubby trees that are common throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. Sometimes known as wild cherries, there are about 40 different kinds of choke cherries. Common choke cherries (Prunus virginiana) is representative.

This tree often grows as a shrub that can become 12 or more feet in height, occasionally up to 30 feet, depending on the species. The leaves are quite like those of plum, apple or domestic cherry trees, though the trunks are rarely more than a few inches in diameter. The blossoms appear in clusters, unlike those of most cherries. They usually bloom in May. These give way to the small cherries that turn red and then dark red as they ripen.

The cherries were eaten by the American Indians, who commonly dried it for winter use or used it in pemmican and in other meals. To most people, though, chokecherries have a tart and bitter flavor when they are eaten right after picking them off the tree. Yet, these cherries are exceptionally good when made into jelly and they produce one of the most effective cough suppressant syrups that can be made.

The properties of choke cherries to lessen coughs was quite well known to American Indians. It has become equally well known to the culture of today. Many of the best commercial cough syrups and lozenges contain choke cherry juice. The package label will usually denote this as “wild cherry”. As already noted, choke cherries are also known as wild cherries. The basis of both the cough syrup and choke cherry jelly is the juice from the ripe cherries.

Important note about choke cherries

NOTE: It needs to be mentioned here that several sources state that all parts of this tree are poisonous. In fact, livestock have been poisoned from eating a large quantity of choke cherry foliage. However, this is misleading, so it deserves clarification.

The leaves, bark, fruit and pits of choke cherries, regular cherries, plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots and other stone fruits and even apples contain a substance called glycoside. When glycoside is consumed and digested, it makes cyanide, which is poison. This is a common feature among stone fruits. However, the amount of glycoside in the fruit of these trees is small so the chances of poisoning is slim, provided that large amounts aren’t consumed at any given time and that the pits or stones are discarded. The seeds inside of the pits have concentrated amounts of glycoside, so after making the juice as follows, the pits should be thrown away. Care should also be given not to crush the pits during the process.

Choke cherry juice

To make the juice, thoroughly wash the ripe fruit under running water, then put them in a non-reactive pot (enameled, glass or stainless steel) with just enough water to cover them. Cover the pot and bring the cherries and water to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes, until the fruit is soft. Stir the fruit then strain through a jelly bag or cheese-cloth.

A pound of choke cherries will yield approximately one pint of wild cherry juice.

Choke cherry jelly

To make the jelly, combine 3 cups of the wild cherry juice with 7 cups of sugar and bring this to a full rolling boil over medium heat. Stir in a box of pectin and boil for about a minute, stirring constantly to prevent the sugar and pectin from sticking and burning on the bottom of the pot. You can also make your own pectin by boiling the peels of apples and using the resulting juice in place of the packaged pectin.

Pour the juice, sugar and pectin mixture into sterilized half pint canning jars, leaving a quarter of an inch head space. Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean, damp cloth and affix lids and rings. Process for 5-10 minutes in a boiling water bath that covers the jars completely, then allow the jars to cool until they seal. When they seal, the lids should make a popping sound and if you press the center of the lid, it shouldn’t give at all.

Choke cherry cough syrup

To two cups of the juice in a sauce pan, add six cups sugar or honey. Bring the mixture to a boil, uncovered. Reduce the heat and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture has thickened; 15-30 minutes. Pour this into a jar with a tight fitting lid and add 1/2 cup vodka. Stir and refrigerate, shaking the jar well before each use. The dose is 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon as needed, not to exceed 8 tablespoons per day.

Note that while this does contain alcohol, it is decidedly not for drinking. The alcohol increases the effectiveness of the cough syrup. However, for pregnant women and children, omit the vodka when making this cough syrup are reduce the dosage.



Choke cherries are common shrub-like trees and the cherries make excellent jelly and cough syrup. However, the cherries are both tart and bitter when they are raw. Still, this is a wild tree with quite useful fruit that is worth harvesting. In fact, the tree is attractive enough that a growing number of people are also using it in landscaping.






  • Comments

      1. Profile photo of Rex Trulove
        Rex Trulove Post author

        It does grow in your state, though. In fact, it grows wild in every state except Hawaii. It also grows in every Canadian province. Part of that is because the tree isn’t picky about soil and while some kinds of wild cherries like damp soil, others prefer dry soil. They also grow from sea level to about 5,000 feet.

      1. Profile photo of Rex Trulove
        Rex Trulove Post author

        Cherries are seasonal here in the states, too. We grow a lot of cherries in Montana and the sweet cherries and pie cherries have already been picked. The wild cherries are just now turning ripe. I took the picture of the chokecherries three years ago, in the middle of August, and about 10 miles from where I’m living now.

      2. Profile photo of N Sri Naga Jyothi
        N Sri Naga Jyothi

        since we don’t get full year, we store it after making it dry mixing with jaggary so it will be like sweet and sour

      3. Profile photo of Rex Trulove
        Rex Trulove Post author

        In the states, a lot of cherries are canned and more cherries are frozen. Very few are dried. I enjoy adding a few cherries to some of my sweet and sour sauce, particularly the sauce I make for sweet and sour pork sausage.

    1. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
      Kyla Matton Osborne

      It bears mentioning that a different plant, chokeberry (Aronia) is sometimes mistakenly called chokecherry. The two are distantly related (both are in the rose family) but are not in the same genus.

      1. Profile photo of Rex Trulove
        Rex Trulove Post author

        That is quite right. If people are in doubt, they should pay attention to the scientific name rather than the common name. Even the scientific name is wrong, occasionally, but the common name can be confusing at times. 🙂

      2. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne

        This is something I learned when I began to study herbal medicines in the 80s. There are so many different herbs that bear the same, or similar, folk names. The botanical name and the description of the plant, as given in a reputable guidebook, are the best indicators that you have properly identified a plant.

      3. Profile photo of Rex Trulove
        Rex Trulove Post author

        Yes and it is in a person’s best interest in another way, too . So many plants have so many common names that they are often called one thing in one state and something entirely different in another. It is worse if it is one country to another. In France, Spain and Germany, they grow courgettes. In America, we grow zucchinis. In the Philippines, they grow patola. People who don’t know better and who don’t pay attention to the botanical name of Cucurbita pepo may never know that they are the same plant.

      4. Profile photo of Kyla Matton Osborne
        Kyla Matton Osborne

        Ah! But now you’ve muddied the waters by referring to the cucurbits because the taxonomy for this family is so off the wall. Did you know that Cucurbita pepo includes zucchini (several cultivars) but also pattypan squash, yellow summer squash, and even some pumpkins?

      5. Profile photo of Rex Trulove
        Rex Trulove Post author

        Yes, and that is why a description and/or a picture is valuable. There is also disagreement about some of the plants that would be lumped in with Cucurbita pepo, so it could depend on which source was used. Even the botanical taxonomy is anything but clean and clear. It is just that the common name usage is even foggier.

      1. Profile photo of Rex Trulove
        Rex Trulove Post author

        Vodka causes the capillaries to expand, increasing blood flow, and this helps with the action of the herb that is being used. In the case of the cough syrup, it is soothing and the vodka allows the ingredients in the cherries that are responsible for halting the cough, to be absorbed more easily.

        Vodka can be used with oregano, but in a different way. With oregano, you’d put the fresh leaves in a jar, cover them with vodka, cap the jar and shake it once or twice a day for two weeks. At that point, strain out the vodka and what you’d have is a homemade oregano extract. The dosage would only be a few drops, though, because it becomes very potent. Extracts can be made of most herbs.

      2. Profile photo of Rex Trulove
        Rex Trulove Post author

        I should mention that vodka is used because it is flavorless, so it doesn’t mask the flavor of what it is used with.

      3. Profile photo of John
        John

        Oh, wow, I’m gonna show this to my mother. She’s still coughing up to this day despite taking her medicine. I wonder how she reacts to it, oregano and vodka. Mmm…

      1. Profile photo of Rex Trulove
        Rex Trulove Post author

        I really like the jelly and I picked several pounds of chokecherries day before yesterday. It doesn’t take long, either. I got the cherries in about 10 minutes.

      1. Profile photo of Rex Trulove
        Rex Trulove Post author

        It is common, but mostly in temperate regions. I’ve never heard of choke cherries growing in tropical locations, though that doesn’t mean that they don’t. 🙂

      1. Profile photo of Rex Trulove
        Rex Trulove Post author

        I just have an interest in plants and have been treating illnesses with plants for most of my life. I’ve been picking chokecherries since before I was a teenager, too. I also took courses in school having to do with plants and had my first garden when I was 8-years-old. 🙂 Things tend to stick with you when you are interested in them. 😀

    2. Profile photo of Treathyl FOX
      Treathyl FOX

      I tell you one thing! Native Americans really knew how to live off the land! 🙂 If they were ever stranded on a desert island they could survive. If I got stranded it would be all over. 🙂 LOL. Or maybe not. Maybe my instinct for survival and will to live might kick in and I learn things about myself I never knew. 🙂 Anyway reading your posts lets me know that food is probably readily available no matter where you live. You just need to learn what’s edible and how to make it tasty! 🙂

      1. Profile photo of Rex Trulove
        Rex Trulove Post author

        You have that exactly right. I’ve taught survival and a very big part of it is being able to identify what can and can’t be eaten. Also, it is sometimes learning what parts of something can be eaten and what can’t be. That part should be obvious to gardeners. Tomato fruits are edible and tasty, but the leaves and stems are poisonous and will at least cause a belly ache. Still, except in places where nothing at all grows, there are plants that a person can eat to survive. Sometimes they are very surprised at how good they are, too. 😀

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