Name: Wild Cherries
There are about 400 species of Prunus worldwide. Their common names generally include cherry, chokecherry, almond, apricot, plum and other fruits known as “stone fruits” because of their large seeds.
These can be large bushes or trees. Some are evergreen, and some are deciduous (meaning that their leaves drop in the winter). Wild cherries can be found throughout North America and in diverse environments.
One way to identify this plant is to crush the leaves, wait a few seconds and then smell them. They’ll have a distinct aroma of bitter almond extract—your clue that the leaf contains cyanide (hydrocyanic acid).
These fruits are very much like cultivated cherries, except the color is darker red—almost maroon—and sometimes even darker. The flesh layer can be very thin in dry years and thicker in seasons following good rains. As with domestic cherries, there’s a thin shell and the meaty inside of the seed.
Some of the common species include chokecherry (P. virginiana), bitter cherry (P. emarginata) and western chokecherry (P. virginiana var. demissa).
Wild cherries are found in canyons, lowland forests, hillsides, farmland, urban areas and chaparral areas and are widespread throughout North America.
The fruit of wild cherries makes a great trail nibble. I usually see them in August, when they ripen and when the trail is hot and dry. The fruit makes a refreshing treat (if it’s not too sour). But don’t eat too many of the raw fruit, or diarrhea might result.
The wild cherry also has a hint of bitterness. The fruit can be cooked off the seeds and the pulp made into jellies, jams and preserves by following any standard jam or jelly recipe. You can also make a fruit “leather” by laying the pulp on a cookie sheet and drying it.
In the old days, Native people enjoyed the flesh of the cherry, but they considered the seed to be the more valuable part of the fruit. The seeds were shelled, and the inside meat was cooked to reduce the cyanide. The cooked seeds, once ground into mush or meal, were then used to make a sweet bread product or added (like acorns) to stews as a gravy or thickening agent.
To be used, the flesh needs only to be eaten raw or cooked.
Considering that at least half of the bulk of the collected fruit is the seed, you should at least try processing the seeds if you’ve collected a reasonable volume of the fruit.
I wash the seeds, let them dry and then shell them. I boil through at least three changes of water—this takes about 20 minutes—and then eat the seeds as is or grind them to a mush on a metate (grinding stone). Typically, I add the cherry seed mush to acorn flour to make pancakes. The cherry seeds give the acorn pancakes a sweet, almondy flavor.
When to Harvest/Availability
Wild cherries typically begin to mature in late July and August. In some areas, they’ll be at their peak of ripeness around September. This can vary by a month either way, depending on the local seasonal weather variations.
Native people boiled the cherry bark and then used it as a cough and sore throat remedy, as well as for treating diarrhea and headaches.
Here’s an interesting excerpt from notes made during the Lewis and Clark Expedition (the spelling discrepancies are most likely his). On June 11, 1805, Meriwether Lewis became sick and wrote,
“I was taken with such violent pain in the intesten that I was unable to partake of the feast of marrowbones … . I directed a parsel of the small twigs [of chokecherry] to be geathered, striped of their leaves, cut into pieces of about 2 inches in length and boiled in water until a strong, black decoction of an astringent bitter taste was produced.
“At sunset, I took a point [pint] of this decoction and abut an hour after repeated the dze. By 10 in the evening I was entirely relieved from pain and in fact every symptom of the disorder forsook me; my fever abated, a gentle perspiration was produced and I had a comfortable and refreshing night’s rest.”
The long, straightest shoots and branches of wild cherries have been used for making baskets and cradles by Native peoples. The wood has also been used for many other crafts and weapons, such as spears and atlatls.
Advice for Growing
Cherry seeds are very easy to sprout and grow. After you eat the fruit, plant the seed in good soil right away.
If you crush the leaf, it will impart a sweet aroma that’s similar to the bitter almond extract used in cooking. That’s the telltale aroma of cyanide—so don’t use the leaf for tea!
If you eat a large volume relative to your body size, you could have stomach pains or diarrhea, so exercise caution.
Wild Cherry Jelly
- 3½ pounds ripe wild cherries
- 6½ cups sugar
- ¼ teaspoon almond extract
- 1 box powdered fruit pectin
- 3 cups water
- Jelly straining bag
Clean the cherries and cook with the water in a covered pot for 15 minutes. Pour into the straining bag and collect the juice in a bowl without squeezing the cherries. Combine the strained cherry juice and sugar in a pot. Stir constantly as it comes to a boil. Then, add the pectin and bring the mixture to a rolling boil for one minute while continuing to stir. Remove from the stove. Stir and skim for 5 minutes. Thoroughly stir in the almond extract. Divide evenly into canning jars and process the jars per the manufacturer’s instructions.
About ASG’s Plant Advisor
Christopher Nyerges has been teaching ethnobotany since 1974. He is the author of Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Foraging Wild Edible Plants of North America and other books on the uses of wild plants. He can be reached at SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the September, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.