If you did your due diligence this spring and took note of where all the white flowering trees and shrubs were, you’re likely starting to see the fruits of that labor, now. Juneberries have come and gone, mulberries too, and next we begin checking hedgerows for stonefruits, including one of my very favorites—wild cherries.
There are a handful of native cherries in North America and most people call them “bird cherries” and say they’re too bitter or too sour or that they’re poisonous, but those people are wrong, and they’re really missing out. The most popular candy flavor in the whole world is cherry, and I’ll give you one guess where that flavor originally came from.
Clusters of gleaming wild cherries have been catching eyes on this landmass as long as there have been eyes here to be caught. Birds, yes, but humans and all other manners of fauna have been racing to get first dibs on ripe cherries every summer for as long as we can collectively remember. Chokecherries in particular are arguably the most widespread tree on the North American continent, making them an unmatched fruit resource to humans and other animals coast to coast.
Wouldn’t you find it hard to believe that something humans have eaten for so long doesn’t taste good? Sure, wild cherries may be astringent right off the tree, but you probably wouldn’t like an olive or a coffee bean right off the tree either. Like most of our favorite foods, wild cherries just need a little TLC between the field and the plate to bring out that sweet, vivid flavor we love so much. First, though, you have to find them, and you have to beat the birds.
Here in Maine, cherries are usually ripe at the end of August. But just yesterday I noticed a patch of chokecherries I’d been watching had been picked clean—underripe—almost a month ahead of “schedule.” Picking underripe cherries is discouraged by most human wild cherry enthusiasts because of the astringency, but when the options are underripe cherries versus no cherries, I’ll take the extra tartness, and it looks like I’ll need to start picking soon. While our other native cherries like black cherry and pin cherry are also delicious, chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) are the most widespread, practical, and productive as a human food. And in my opinion, they’re also best tasting, so that’s the one I’ll be talking about.
To find chokecherries you want to walk edges: woodland edges, field edges, river edges, vacant lot edges, etc. I see them most often backed up to a thicket or a hedgerow, facing a sunny opening like a field, river, marsh, or logging cut in early succession growth. Cherry scouting along the edges of thickets pairs perfectly with shed hunting. It’s easiest to scout for them by spotting the racemes of white, five-petaled flowers in springtime. Here in Maine, they bloom shortly after serviceberries and just before black cherries.
The next best time to spot them is during the mid to late summer when those racemes are, hopefully, hung with spherical fruit. They ripen from hard and green to vibrant, ruby red, to plump juicy black if they don’t get gobbled in the red stage. Here in the East, some are fully ripe when red and never darken, so I aim to pick when they’re deeply red and soft. The leaves are dark green above with a muted, light-green underside—simple, ovate, finely serrated, and arranged alternately on the branch from petioles containing two tiny glands right below the leaf base.
Chokecherries grow either as a large shrub or a small tree, usually forming colonies of slender, wrist-wide, thornless trunks with gray/brown, shallowly-ridged bark with subtle horizontal lenticels. If you scratch through the thin bark of a young twig, it should smell like almond extract, as opposed to a young birch, which sometimes look similar at a young age, which would typically smell of wintergreen. If there is fruit present, squeeze one apart with your fingers and there should be one single pit, never multiple seeds.
Once you’re sure you have chokecherries, watch them like a waxwing and get your blickey as soon as they’re ripe. I like to use a cherry bucket with a harness which you can find at most orchard supply companies and is well worth the money if you pick fruit or nuts in quantity for preserving, but really any bucket or basket tied around your waist will do. A branch hook with a foot-loop is also handy so you can bring the highest limbs down within reach and you have both hands free for picking.
Chokecherries are a dream to pick when they’re ripe. They strip right off the stems in big handfuls and are sturdy enough to pick many pounds into one bucket at a time without worrying about squishing and spoiling. When I get them home I like to winnow out the leaves and stems by pouring them back and forth from bucket to bucket in front of a fan on high, this should remove most of the insects as well.
After winnowing I give them a good rinse and then let them dry. Then they go in the fridge in a wide, shallow container like a hotel pan, or into the freezer in freezer bags until I’m ready to use them. A few days in the fridge or just overnight in the freezer can lessen the astringency by quite a bit, so if you pick underripe, I highly recommend this.
Start by eating a few ripe ones, right off the bush, just to get a sense of what you’re starting with. Be sure to spit out the pits because like all stonefruits, the seeds contain a hydrocyanic acid (essentially cyanide), but only in the raw form. The acid, also called prussic acid, is easily denatured and rendered edible by drying or cooking.
Indigenous North Americans would most often do this by pounding the fruit to crush the pit open and then dry the fruit/seed mash under the hot sun, making a portable, phytochemically rich, shelf-stable food that included the important oils contained in the seed. You can use this method to make little dried cakes, crumbles for granola, or fruit leather, as demonstrated in this short video by botanist Arthur Haines. The dried pits also add an amazing depth of almond-like flavor to the cherry flesh. There’s actually a rich and varied history of cultures around the world using the almond flavor of dried cherry pits around the world. If you’ve ever had amaretto or noyaux, you’ve tasted it.
If you’re wary of the pits or just want your cherry flavor straight up, the most basic, versatile thing is juice, which is made by simply simmering your whole cherries with enough water to cover half of them in a pot for 15 minutes or so until the flesh softens and separates from the pits when you stir them. Pour this through a strainer or jelly bag, let it sit in the fridge overnight for the cloudiness to settle, sweeten if you want, and enjoy in all its cherryness on its own, liven up other beverages with a splash or freeze to add to all sorts of things from desserts to sauces.
My all-time favorite way to use cherries, though, is for syrup. It’s simple to make, it uses essentially the same technique as the juice with added sweetener and vinegar, and it produces an unbelievably pink product. The tanginess is right in the sweet spot for a gamebird glaze, or you can drizzle it over ice cream for dessert. Alan Bergo has the perfect recipe here.