RIGHT IN OUR BACKYARDS: All Choked Up About Chokecherries

Followers of my “backyard nature” articles may recall that I am a great lover of cherries.  I can eat them all by themselves, or in pies, cakes, whatever….

Published June 9, 2014 9:46 PM
3 min read


choke-thFollowers of my “backyard nature” articles may recall that I am a great lover of cherries.  I can eat them all by themselves, or in pies, cakes, whatever….

By Bill Lawyer

chokeFollowers of my “backyard nature” articles may recall that I am a great lover of cherries.  I can eat them all by themselves, or in pies, cakes, whatever….

In addition to the several “old world” varieties of commercially grown cherries – generally categorized as “sweet” or “sour,” there are two native species – black cherries and chokecherries.  

Most arborists agree that the two are very closely related. The primary differences are that black cherry trees are much taller, and there are subtle differences in the shape and color of the leaves.

In fact, chokecherries are often more of a shrub than a tree. Whereas black cherries develop study trunks and can grow up to 100 feet tall, the chokecherries have thin trunks and are lucky to reach 15 to 20 feet; they’re often an “understory” tree in the woods.

Both produce very beautiful white flowers around the beginning of June in our neck of the woods. Whereas locust trees, which bloom at the same time, have rows of delicate petals, the native species of cherries produce flowers in what are called “raceme” stalks with 15 to 20 flowers.  

These cherries are very different from the Asian species that blossom profusely in early to mid-April. Those do not produce fruit.  

Being native to North America, chokecherries can be found growing anywhere that open space is available. Local wildlife spread the seeds. There are lots of them by the Purdy Cemetery/foot bridge area of Disbrow Park.  

Unlike the non-native sweet and sour varieties of cherries, “chokes” have never really been cultivated for human consumption. The result has been that while wildlife loves them, to most people’s taste they’re small, bitter, nasty, and make you want to choke.  

They’re very much smaller than commercial varieties, creating much more work for anyone wanting to eat them or use them in pies.  

And yet, according to botanists, wild food gurus, and locavore proponents, chokecherries are edible. They even have high levels of antioxidant pigment compounds, including anthocyanins.  

Ethnobotanists say that choke- cherry fruit and trees were an important part of the diets and medicines of northern Native Americans.  

The commercial varieties of cherries have been cultivated for thousands of years throughout Europe and Asia to produce fruit high in sugar. With chokecherries you have to add your own.  

Now I have to admit that it’s much easier to go to local food stores around Rye during “le temps des cerises” of late June through early August and just buy the sweet cherries.  

But from an environmental point of view, think of all the costs involved in bringing cherries to Rye from Michigan or Oregon.  

And, Canadian plant scientists have developed at least one variety of chokecherry that produces “less astringent” fruit.  

Now, if they could just develop a variety that had larger fruit.  

But then, if we ate all the chokecherries, what would the many species of birds and mammals that feed off them do?  

So for now, at least, I’ll just enjoy my nature walks around Rye, and “feast” visually on the beautiful profusion of choke and black cherry blooms brightening up the neighborhoods – right in our backyards.



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