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What Is a Chokecherry?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Chokecherry refers to the fruit of the tree Prunus virginiana, which grows in abundance in North America. These tiny cherries, generally about .4 inches (1 cm) in diameter when fully grown, are relatives to the black cherry. They’re often called Virginia bird cherries, since birds delight in eating them, but unless they are ripe, wild chokecherries often taste quite bitter and sour to humans.

Some varieties of chokecherries are more palatable than others, and the cultivated chokecherry is described as having a mildly sweet, cherry taste. With the addition of sugar, chokecherries are often used to make jam, syrup, and fruit pies. Chokecherry wine is somewhat comparable to wine made from grapes. The chokecherry is the state fruit of North Dakota.

You can find both Eastern and Western varieties of the chokecherry, and though they may attract birds, they’re often viewed as the bane of farmers, particularly those who grow fruit trees. Chokecherries tend to harbor pests like tent caterpillars, which, if they migrate to other fruit trees, can destroy crops. People who raise horses have to be certain that there are no chokecherries nearby, since the foliage is poisonous to horses, especially when the leaves are wilted. The wilting process causes the leaves to emit large amounts of cyanide, giving them a sweet flavor attractive to horses. If a horse eats about 10-11 pounds (about 5 kg) of wilted leaves, it can easily become poisoned.

Chokecherries may also be grown for their ornamental appeal. Wild cherry blossoms are some of the prettiest, and the trees produce them in abundance. If you do decide to grow chokecherries, you should know that they’re not a great choice if you have any kind of pets or young children. Not only leaves, but also bark, and flower are poisonous as well. Though poisoning cases with the chokecherry are rare, there is still a risk.

You should be aware that the chokecherry's pit, like the pits of peaches and nectarines, release cyanide when cooked. The cherries should be pitted prior to use so the pits aren’t accidentally consumed. Once pits are removed, chokecherries are safe to eat, and there are a variety of recipes springing up to capture their flavor. Among them you’ll find recipes for chokecherry jam, pie, smoothies, syrup, wine and liqueur.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon1005457 — On Aug 31, 2021

When we were kids, we'd spend parts of the summer at our grandparents' cottage on the Ottawa River, and we discovered some chokecherry trees along a small path between bays. We'd bring small baskets with us and pick the cherries until the owner chased us away. Of course, we'd go back over an over again because the branches hanged over his fence, so we decided they belonged to everyone. We put them in salted water overnight and ate them the next day. Great times.

By anon1002011 — On Aug 17, 2019

You can use chokecherries for jelly, etc

By anon928817 — On Jan 29, 2014

It is an extremely common and flavorful jelly, syrup and pie fruit in the areas where it grows. Still one of my favorite jellies.

By anon353881 — On Nov 03, 2013

I've eaten chokecherries since I was a little kid. My parents eat them and my grandparents eat them. On the Canadian prairies, we've eaten them for years as raw, soups, muffins, jams, jellies and particularly - wine.

By anon268902 — On May 15, 2012

My friend told me about gathering chokecherries with his now late grandma, she always carried a 44. He asked why, and she told him for the bears!

By anon231901 — On Nov 27, 2011

I have been eating wild choke cherries all my life and I have yet to get sick off them. If you wait for the first frost, the berries turn very sweet.

By anon97400 — On Jul 19, 2010

Its the leaf that's has the problem not the fruit. When the leaf starts to turn is after it has been either separated from the tree or the branch it's on.

So feel free to eat the fruit but not the leaf.

By anon85706 — On May 21, 2010

Chokecherry leaves are quite poisonous to livestock, but they usually avoid them. My neighbor lost several young goats after they ate chokecherry leaves that were downed by hail. It is rare, but you should be aware of the risk.

By anon78895 — On Apr 20, 2010

We have two bushes in our yard, and I agree with the above comments. I make syrup, and jelly, nary a problem or poisoning! Have two children and a hubby who eat them right off the bush, never even experienced a stomach ache.

By anon43183 — On Aug 26, 2009

In addition, I've pastured all kinds of livestock where they had access to chokecherries. Nary a problem.

By anon38097 — On Jul 23, 2009

we bought some chokecherry jelly at a welcome center in Kansas recently and it was delicious. Didn't know they were used for jelly 7-23-09

By anon5698 — On Dec 04, 2007

American Indians have reported eating chokecherries for many, many years. They are still collected and eaten by tribal members all across the country. Not only do Native Americans eat the berries after cooking them, but they eat them fresh off the plant as well.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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