Edible Wild Plants: Chokeberry (Prunus Virginiana)

 Chokeberry (Prunus Virginiana) Bush

Chokeberry (Prunus Virginiana) also known as bitter-berry, or Virginia bird cherry is a species of bird cherry (Prunus subgenus Padus) native to North America, where it is found almost throughout the continent except for the Deep South and the far north.

The raw berries have a good flavor but are very puckery, much as choke-cherries. It is stated, however, that the Indians used these fruits, destroying the puckery quality by cooking. They certainly yield a splendid, heavy and sweet jelly, dark-carmine and very solid.

Chokeberry (Prunus Virginiana) BerriesThe berries are so very abundant and contain so much juice and such an abundance of pectin that it is pathetic to see the thousands of bushels of them go, every autumn, completely to waste. They could certainly be used to supply pectin which is often deficient in some fruits.

Chokecherry is widely regarded as an important wildlife food plant and provides habitat, watershed protection, and species diversity. Fruits, leaves, and twigs are utilized. Large mammals including bears, moose, coyotes, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, elk, and deer use chokecherry as browse. Chokecherry is also a food source for small mammals. The fruits are an important food for many birds. Cattle and domestic sheep also eat chokecherry, and because of its toxicity (see below), poisoning sometimes occurs. Livestock normally do not eat fatal quantities except when other forage is scarce.

The fruits of chokecherry are used to make wines, syrups, jellies, and jams. The bark is sometimes used as a flavoring agent in cough syrup. American Indians used bark extract to cure diarrhea. The fruits were used to treat canker sores, cold sores, and added to pemmican. The Paiutes made a medicinal tea from the leaves and twigs to treat colds and rheumatism. The wood was used for arrows, bows, and pipe stems.

Edible Parts

  • Fruit
  • Seed

Uses

Fruit – raw or cooked. Very harsh, it is normally used in pies, jellies etc. Dark and juicy, it is sometimes edible raw when fully mature. The fruit can be dried and is then quite nice raw. The fruit is up to 8mm in diameter and contains a single large seed.

Seed – raw or cooked. Very nutritious, they are added to pemmican. Do not eat the seed if it is too bitter – see warning below.

The bark and twigs are a tea substitute.

Warning: The seed can contain high concentrations of hydrogen cyanide, a poison that gives almonds their characteristic flavor. This toxin is readily detected by its bitter taste. Usually present in too small a quantity to do any harm, any very bitter seed or fruit should not be eaten. In small quantities, hydrogen cyanide has been shown to stimulate respiration and improve digestion, it is also claimed to be of benefit in the treatment of cancer. In excess, however, it can cause respiratory failure and even death.

Medicinal Uses

 Chokeberry (Prunus Virginiana) FlowersChokecherry was widely employed medicinally by many native North American Indian tribes who used it to treat a variety of complaints, valuing it especially for its astringency and beneficial effect upon the respiratory system. It is little, if at all, used in modern herbalism.

The roots and the bark are a blood tonic, astringent, pectoral, sedative, tonic and appetite stimulant. An infusion has been used in the treatment of fevers, coughs and colds. An infusion of the root bark has been used as a wash for burns, old sores and ulcers.

The inner bark is used externally in the treatment of wounds. A decoction of the inner bark has been used as a treatment for laryngitis and stomach aches. The bark is sometimes used as a flavoring agent in cough syrups.

The dried and powdered fruits are used to stimulate the appetite, treat diarrhea and bloody discharges of the bowels. The astringent unripened fruit has been used by children as a treatment for diarrhea.

The fruit juice has been used as a treatment for sore throats. Although no specific mention has been seen for this species, all members of the genus contain amygdalin and prunasin, substances which break down in water to form hydrocyanic acid (cyanide or prussic acid). In small amounts this exceedingly poisonous compound stimulates respiration, improves digestion and gives a sense of well-being.

Other Uses

The plant forms thickets by means of suckers from its extensive root system and can be planted for erosion control. It is a pioneer species of abandoned fields and cut-over lands. A green dye can be obtained from the leaves. A green dye is obtained from the inner bark in spring. A dark grey to green dye can be obtained from the fruit. A purplish-red dye is obtained from the fruit. Wood – close grained, moderately strong, hard, heavy, does not burn easily. The wood weighs about 36lb per cubic foot. It is not valuable because of its small size and irregular shape, but is used for skewers etc.

Where Does Chokeberry (Prunus Virginiana) Grow?

Chokeberry (Prunus Virginiana) Growing Area

How To Identify Chokeberry (Prunus Virginiana)

Chokeberry (Prunus Virginiana) Leaf
Leaf

Alternate, simple, oblong to nearly oval, 2 to 4 inches long, finely serrated margin, dark green above and paler below, minute glands on petiole.

Chokeberry (Prunus Virginiana) Flower
Flower

White, in a loose terminal raceme (3 to 6 inches long), appearing after leaves.

Chokeberry (Prunus Virginiana) Fruit
Fruit

Dark red to purple drupe, 1/3 inch in diameter, maturing in late summer.

Chokeberry (Prunus Virginiana) Twig
Twig

Twigs slender, but stouter than black cherry, light brown to gray, strong unpleasant odor when broken, buds are 1/3 inch long covered with brownish scales.

Chokeberry (Prunus Virginiana) Bark
Bark

Smooth, gray-brown, conspicuous lenticels that develop into shallow fissures, young stems have shallowly peeling, curling layers

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