We took a nature walk in the small Southern California town of Oak Glen last weekend. The scenic area is known for its apple orchards, but we stumbled upon something quite different: chokecherries! Along the trail, we noticed two boys gathering plump purple berries from the branches of some tall shrubs. When asked whether the berries were edible, one of them cheerfully responded, "These are poison berries! My grandpa likes them." Slightly alarmed and quite intrigued, we located Grandma, who gave us the full scoop.
Grandma explained that they were actually called chokecherries and warned us that they were not very tasty right off the tree but could be cooked down into a beautiful fuchsia-colored jam. She had been coming to the same spot to pick chokecherries for 40 years! While she'd never encountered anyone else foraging for chokecherries, she did know that local bears and birds shared her family's taste for the berries.
Of course, we couldn't resist picking a small bag for ourselves and did some more research as soon as we got home. It turns out that chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) grow wild throughout much of North America and are the official state fruit of North Dakota. Closely related to the black cherry, the red and purple berries are used to make jam, jelly, syrup, and wine. (Caution: Like cherries and apricots, the pits contain hydrocyanic acid and should not be consumed.)
The jam we made was tart and astringent and similar to cranberries. On its own, it was rather intense, but the astringency was tempered when served with butter on toast. We were admittedly more enchanted by the color than the flavor, but we look forward to foraging for chokecherries again and experimenting with other recipes.
• Chokecherry Jam, from High Altitude Gardening
• Chokecherry Juice, Vinegar, Syrup, Jelly, Jam, Liqueur, and Wine, from ASHE
• Wild Chokecherry Wine, from The Winemaking Home Page
• All Chokecherries, All the time, from Maple River Winery in North Dakota
Related: Found Food: Do You Forage for Food?
(Images: Gregory Han and Emily Ho)