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.