As I start to slowly increase the number of articles I have on this website so to will I increase the topics, species, and coverage of our wild foods. That will definitely include articles about the many delicious wild fruits and berries that can be found in Colorado! I have the most articles about mushrooms because that's really the subject that I'm most passionate about, but I have touched on berries in the past with my article on one of our high elevation currant species, Ribes montigenum. Let's add to that list with this article on chokecherry!
Chokecherry is one of our most common native Prunus species in Colorado - It's also very common over much of North America! The Prunus genus is in the rose family, Rosaceae, and includes all of the stone fruits that we're familiar with such as plums, cherries, peaches, and even almonds! These fruits are botanically known as 'drupes' which is simply a fruit with fleshy pulp surrounding a single pit. We'll cover this more in a little bit when we go over the identifying features of chokecherry, but if a fruit doesn't have a single pit than it isn't a Prunus species!
Chokecherry is a fairly straight forward plant to identify so it's a great species for beginning foragers to learn! Look for the following traits when identifying chokecherry:
In the spring, small, 5-petalled, white flowers with yellow centers that are borne on a cylindrical structure called a 'raceme'.
The bark of Prunus species have structures called 'lenticels' that appear as small raised warts along the trunks and branches.
Alternate leaves that are finely serrated and generally oval in shape.
The cherries are first green in late spring and through the summer will ripen to red and eventually a dark purple or black color which is when they're ready to pick!
Chokecherries are pretty abundant in Colorado and can be found in a variety of habitats from urban landscaping, to foothills, to canyons, and even in random habitats that you wouldn't expect to find them where they've been planted by birds. The only places where you won't find chokecherry would be our highest elevations, I don't usually see them too often above 9,000ft or so, though I've read that they can grow up to 10,000ft in elevation. The most common place I find chokecherry is along riparian areas, or really any water, in the Front Range and Foothills. So, if you're looking for chokecherry it shouldn't take you too long to locate some!
In Colorado, we don't have too many look alikes to worry about when it comes to chokecherry as long as you're making sure to check for all of the identifying features! In other states chokecherry is sometimes confused with black cherry, Prunus serotina, or bird cherry, P. padus. Both of these species can be found in Colorado, but they're almost always going to be in landscaping where they were planted purposefully. These species are both usually much larger than chokecherry which rarely gets to 15 or 20ft in height here. If you do happen to find one of these other cherry species, you're in luck because they're also edible!
Some non-Prunus species that can confuse people include chokeberry, Aronia species, and buckthorn, Rhamnus species. The latter is thankfully not very common in Colorado, but it is a major problem in some of the midwestern and eastern states as a damaging invasive. The former, chokeberry, can be found in Colorado and is probably confused for chokecherry more because of its name than its actual appearance! Whoever decided that we needed plants named chokecherry and chokeberry was quite the prankster! Both plants are in the rose family and have dark purple edible berries when ripe! Both fruits are high in antioxidants, and quite astringent hence the 'choke' part of their name. However, chokeberries fruit in a structure call a 'corymb' which is a cluster that all sort of lay on the same plane instead of the cylindrical raceme of the chokecherries. They also have multiple seeds inside their fruits!
Finally, you might also happen on a chokecherry with purple leaves! These are usually called "Canada red chokecherries" and are actually a cultivar that can be purchased at local nurseries and occasionally found in the wild!
Chokecherries typically start to fully ripen in mid to late summer. Most years in Colorado this is around August or September, though this year (2021) some of the chokecherries ripened a little early in the lower elevations. I have been seeing ripe cherries at the time of writing this in early August, so get out there to pick some cherries if you're reading this soon after it was published.
Harvesting chokecherries can be as simple as plucking them from the clusters by hand, but if you're looking to harvest any larger quantities I would recommend using a berry picker! Berry pickers come in many forms and are often referred to as "Swedish berry pickers" or "berry rakes". Essentially, they're small boxes with a handle on top and a rake on the underside that's meant to pick the berries from the plant as you gently swipe through the foliage. These tools make harvesting large quantities of cherries a very simple task, but they aren't allowed in some areas so be sure to check the berry picking regulations before using a rake. For collecting chokecherries last year I used this berry picker* and it worked great!
I did notice that the berry picker wires would occasionally get caught on leaves or small branches, so I took a little extra time and worked it around to just get the clusters of cherries into the rake whenever possible. This cuts into the time savings a little, but it still makes the process much faster than picking by hand and it prevents any unnecessary damage to the plants. The other item that I found useful was a berry sorting and cleaning tray which you can see in the photo below. Like the picker linked above, this is from a company called Linden, but I wasn't able to find them in stock so you'll have to search if you want one.
So, what's next after you've found, identified, and picked some chokecherries!? If you've picked a lot of them you can clean and freeze them to store for later uses. Last year I froze around 12 pounds of chokecherries in vacuum sealed bags and we have been using them to try our hand and making wine! These frozen cherries can be used in pretty much any application that calls for fresh ones, so it's a great way to save them for later inspirations!
Chokecherries are really their best in sugar-added applications and infusions because of how tart and astringent they are. Here are some ideas and links to recipes from some of my favorites foragers!
Chokecherry wine is another fun way to make use of your harvest. Our first try was a bit too tannic for us, so I won't link any recipes here yet. There are plenty to be had online though!
Chokecherry Bounce from Ellen Zachos. I made this last year and it's delicious. The wait is well worth it!
Chokecherry Gastrique from Alan Bergo. This one is another that I would recommend trying! The result is a very versatile sauce that can be used in all sorts of applications. I've used mine to drizzle over game meat, as the finishing touch for some homemade vanilla ice cream with candied nuts, or as a little flavor addition to a glass of sparkling water!
Chokecherry Vinegar from Alan Bergo. After you juice your cherries for jelly use the scraps to make vinegar! You could also just put some fresh cherries into vinegar to infuse that instead of making from scratch.
There are lots of other great uses for your chokecherry harvest, but those ones should at least get you started! Chokecherry is such a lovely wild fruit, and it offers a nice challenge in that it isn't really great to eat right off the tree. Makes you work on those kitchen skills which end up coming in handy for all sorts of other foraged goodies!
*Products are Amazon affiliate links which gives me a small percentage of the purchase but doesn't cost you anything extra. Thank you if you decide to purchase anything!