The chokecherry or prunus virginiana is said to be the most widespread tree in North America. It is found from Newfoundland to British Colombia, through all but the most northern areas. It ranges as far south as Georgia and in the Rockies through southern Arizona and New Mexico. The chokecherries of the Southwest are said to be darker in color and less astringent.
Native American tribes of the Northern Rockies, Northern Plains, the forest region of Canada and the United States, considered chokecherries as the most important fruit in their diets. The bark from the chokecherry root was used as used to ward off or treat colds, fever and stomach maladies by Native Americans. According to the Cherokees, you boil the bark for fifteen minutes and drink the tea. The fruit was collected by many Native American tribes and was pounded with the seeds included, then dried in the sun.
European settlers adopted the use of chokecherries, particularly in the northern Plains. They were mainly used for jam, jelly, wine, and syrup. Today many people mistakenly think that they are poisonous. Chokecherries are toxic to horses, and moose, cattle, goats, deer, and other animals with segmented stomachs.
The mature fruits are spherical or oblong, occasionally even with a pointed tip. When fully ripe, they are dark purple to black. The cherries are about one quarter to one third of an inch across, and contain a large pit. The cherries are usually in hanging clusters three to six inches long, each cluster contains about eight to twenty cherries.
The biggest problem with chokeberries is created by those who gather the fruit when it is under-ripe. Chokecherries should be left on the tree until they are dark purple-black, showing no hint of red. Then they should be left on the bush another week or so to over-ripen. These will taste better than ones collected as soon as they darken, as their astringency will be greatly reduced. The best time to collect chokecherries is from the middle of August into early September. Sometimes the fruit appears ripe in late July, but don’t be fooled, give them more time.
Chokeberries also make a good tall hedge or windbreak. They grow to be ten to fifteen foot high and do not have thorns. Chokeberries will attract birds which love the cherries.
Since we are trying to replace the inedible scrubs in our yard with edible plants, we plan to plant a hedge of chokeberries this spring.