Question about black chokecherries

hi everybody. I moved to Alaska many years ago from Poland and what I miss the most is fruit trees. There are some black chokecherry trees though that grow on our property but I was always told that they are poisonous. However, now since I try to learn more about gardening, I come across information on internet that you can make jam out of it which means they are edible. I tried to google more info but I was getting contradicting info. Some sources say its totally toxic, some claim that they are totally fine to consume. What is the truth? Do you ever harvest chokecherries?


  • LaurieLovesLearning
    LaurieLovesLearning Posts: 7,358 admin

    You can relax, @marta271! Chokecherry is certainly a very common, wild berry staple in my area. The branches & twigs contain cyanide as does the pit. The fruit is perfectly fine. The toxin is not a concern at all if you spit the pit out while eating the raw berries (ew...not for me, but the kids love it) or if you boil the berries down in water to make juice or syrup and of course, remove those pits afterward. Some people of my background make chokecherry pies. It might taste good, but that's too much spitting for me!

    When I accidentally drank a smoothie that had a few rogue ground up sweet cherry pits in the bottom, I did some research. It isn't recommended to chew them or grind them up (of course), however, toxicity depends on your size and how many you consumed. I was safe after all.

    A heads up that you will get a bitter taste to the syrup if the pits are rubbed together. I did that one year with a cone. I won't repeat that!

    The chokecherry is supposed to be poisonous to cattle, but we had one milk cow and a beef cross that loved one bush. It was my best bush too, that held the sweeter berries and actually looked attractive until the wrecked it. Now all the berries are at the very top and impossible to reach. The low hanging branches are gone.

    My mother-in-law says there are two types. One is sweeter, and it was one of two bushes like that that I had identified. I think taste is one way to determine this, and I think the other way is a slight difference in time of riping.

    My husband's Métis brother-in-law says his mom boils the berries after covering them with water, & then removes the pits, leaving a concentrate that's good for arthritis. He says it works well for him and my husband seconds that.

    Chokecherries & the juice freeze very well.

  • marta271
    marta271 Posts: 15 ✭✭✭

    ok thank you. I read somewhere that you are supposed to remove pits, but true is I can't imagine doing that because the chokecherries on our trees are very little like size of small blueberries!

  • LaurieLovesLearning
    LaurieLovesLearning Posts: 7,358 admin
    edited April 2022

    @marta271 You don't treat them as sweet cherries, aa in removing pits first. You boil the berries in water & then put them through a jelly bag and strain that way. You can squeeze extra out too.

    Your chokecherries sound normal in size. The pit takes up most of the berry, but combined with the water, the volume of what you end up with is greatly increased.

    Do try doing up chokecherries. You will enjoy the end product, although you probably will want to add sugar. They are a super pucker-worthy type of tartness.

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,505 admin

    Chokecherries are small fruits and sooooo puckery but they are very popular in my area for making jelly (you will need to add pectin, though) and a few people make wine. And a great pancake syrup! I like them best that way. Easy to pick, the way they hang in clusters.

    We have another small wild cherry in my area; a pin cherry. Almost the same size fruit, just slightly bigger and red in colour when ripe. They are a bit sweeter but not by much. These ones don't hang in long clusters but are more individual fruits like on a sweet cherry.

    You should have lots of other wild fruits up your way @marta271. Blueberries, lingonberries, cranberries (regular & highbush), raspberries, cloudberries, crowberries, northern red currants (and other gooseberry & currant species) and saskatoons. You might be a bit far north and inland for salmonberries; they are more of a coastal species, so around Anchorage.

    So not much for fruit trees but lots of other fruit. Saskatoons will grow into shrubs like the chokecherries but the rest are lower shrubs.

  • marta271
    marta271 Posts: 15 ✭✭✭

    Make sense! Thank you. I am looking forward to this chokecherry jarring project at the end of summer!

  • marta271
    marta271 Posts: 15 ✭✭✭

    Yeah, we do have some, especially blueberries are the easiest to find. I have a hard time finding others in the wild and we live on north facing property so we can't grow our own. We tried raspberries but the bushes died, didn't have enough sunlight. We do have raspberry farm though which unfortunately charge a lot of money so its good for just family small amount harvest. I have to start learning where are good areas in the wild to look for all these verities of berries and when.

  • judsoncarroll4
    judsoncarroll4 Posts: 5,354 admin

    There is a great old book by Louis Riotte, called the complete guide to growing berries and grapes. I highly recommend it. Also, check your county's agricultural extension agency. They should be able to tell you exactly what will grow well in your area. For instance, some of the blackberry and gooseberry varieties are very cold hardy.

  • marta271
    marta271 Posts: 15 ✭✭✭
  • LaurieLovesLearning
    LaurieLovesLearning Posts: 7,358 admin

    @torey I wish are pincherries were the same size. I love those & they make the most beautiful jelly! We have many growing wild here, but they are so tiny.

  • vickeym
    vickeym Posts: 2,019 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @marta271 Yes, use the cooperative extension office and website. They have incredible amounts of information and much is free. Also seding you a message on here with a link for a place with Alaska master gardeners.

  • Merin Porter
    Merin Porter Posts: 1,026 admin

    My neighbor makes a pretty tasty chokecherry jelly every year from the fruit that grows in his yard. I've never gotten around to making it myself, but I can certainly confirm that it's a thing. And he's in his 70s, so he's lived to tell the tale.... :)

  • TimWhite
    TimWhite Posts: 2 ✭✭✭

    I don't find chokecherries to be too bitter or tannic to eat when cooked, no need for sugar. Add a little water, stew, run through a food mill to get the pulp for most yield. I had to reduce the spring and choose the right size screen or seeds would fly out like popcorn.

    The cyanogens are inactivated at body temperature. So after boiling and producing jam you could dry and grind the seeds for flour.

    Highbush cranberries also grow around here. Viburnum species.

  • George
    George Posts: 3 ✭✭✭

    Your question, actually, can be applied to three different types of berries; all three are considered toxic if large quantities are eaten, possibly, any more than a handful to some imbibers. i have witnessed children where I live eating raw Service Berries Those berries are chokecherries, elderberries, and serviceberries/ saskatoons/Juneberries, all the same berries, that contain a group of toxins that are neutralized after the berries are dried or cooked. The toxin is cyanogens. I find the guy above me, Tim White, comments about once the berries reach body temperature the toxins are neutralized. His other comment about the jam being produced and one can use the seeds is interesting to me also because my understanding of a jam is that one leaves the seeds intact in the product and that if you remove the seeds it is to produce a jelly or syrup. I did not know of producing flour from the seeds: NICE! So, strain the seeds from your cooked jam and make flour from them. again, NICE ! one would need to grind up choke cherry seed if you wanted to make an actual jam or include it in pemmican because they are large for such a small cherry. My question is: Can cyanide be produced from isolated cyanogens? Just a thought, folks. I will look that up, My understanding is that someone who eats a large quantity gets diarrhea and stomach cramping/discomfort. I have read that the Black Feet Native Americans smoked ritual pipes by making the pipe from the hollowed-out stalk of the large bush that elderberry is produced on which is also considered toxic I read, also that elderberry leaves can be applied to the skin to relieve joint pain I am not sure about the leaves of the other two types of berries.

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,505 admin
    edited April 2022

    To clarify.

    Chokecherries are Prunus virginiana. Pin cherries are Prunus pennsylvanica. Bitter cherries are Prunus emarginata. Sweet cherries are Prunus avium with many sub-species or variants. All of these species contain varying amounts of cyanogenic gylcosides, some are very low and a few are quite high (Morella cherry for one). Cyanide is released only when you open the seed up by chewing or grinding but chewing the pits would break your teeth. These compounds can also be found in varying amounts in apple, peach, plum and apricot seeds and pits. Heating the seeds deactivates the cyanogenic glycosides making the flour/powder safe to eat. There is one cherry (Mahlab) that is ground and used for a spice. Grinding cherry pits to gain cyanide or a flour/spice would be a very laborious process. Not sure how you would get the kernel out of that very sturdy shell without crushing it along with the shell.

    Chokeberries are different genus, Aronia. There are several species.

    Saskatoons (aka service berries or June berries) are Amelanchier species.

    All above species are in the Rosaceae family and many of these plants do have varying levels of cyanogenic compounds. There is no evidence that any of these compounds are present in rose hips, though. And I have personally witnessed children eating buckets of raw saskatoons without any detrimental effects.

    Elderberries (Black: Sambucus nigra & S. canadensis, Blue: S. cerulea, Red: S. racemosa, etc.) are a different family; Caprifoliaceae. All elderberry species also contain cyanogenic compounds but again in varying amounts. Some elderberries are safe to eat raw in small quantities (black & blue species) while others (red) should be avoided. Most of us are using elderberries cooked; in pies, jams or jellies or simmered into a medicinal syrup and, as cyanide evaporates at very low temperatures, there is no danger with cooked or dehydrated fruit. Elderberry leaves are used in medicinal teas but again heat is involved. One should not use the stems of elderberries for pipes or blow guns or anything that is going in the mouth. The plant itself (stems, branches, rootstalk) contains more of the poisonous compounds than the berries.

    As for diarrhea and stomach cramping, that can happen when you overindulge in any large quantity of any fresh raw fruit. Remember the tale of Peter Rabbit and his tummy ache after raiding Farmer McGregor's garden?

    With regards to jam and jelly, I personally can't see making a jam out of any of the cherry species because of the size of the pits. Seeds of berries are OK in a jam but I don't want to have large, teeth-breaking lumps in my jam. So in my humble opinion, cherries are best left to jelly, not jam.

  • LaurieLovesLearning
    LaurieLovesLearning Posts: 7,358 admin

    Thanks @torey for your clarification & explanation about the differences & similarities in the berries.

    I will second that saskatoon berries (and their seeds) are perfectly safe to consume whole & raw.

    When I first read about service/june berries (I'd not heard of them before), I learned that they are actually different from saskatoons, and not the same plant/berry, although often are mistaken one for the other. I wanted to know, so I researched it a lot. I don't have anything to back it up anymore, but had found information claiming they are in fact, similar but different. To me, it was a only a matter of interest, so it didn't warrant keeping that information handy.

    Just something I grandfather made the best chokecherry wine around. My understanding is that the secret lay in the water. Just a 1/2 mile away, the water is different and it results in a wine that isn't as good (so say the wine drinkers over that way).

    I remember tasting it as a little thing and being a lover of kool-aid at the time remember thinking that it tasted way better than kool-aid. Now as an adult I know that isn't difficult, but it was quite tasty.

    @torey What do you know about the safety of eating chokecherry seeds, raw, body temp, and cooked? Can you provide reliable references for us?

  • norabelehcim
    norabelehcim Posts: 58 ✭✭✭

    Grew up spending days among the top branches of our choke cherry tree, reading books and racing the birds for the little cherries, in season

    Also have used for jam, etc

    Maybe there are other varieties of the tree?

  • Torey
    Torey Posts: 5,505 admin

    There are several different species of Amelanchier. Here in BC there are three species; A. alnifolia, A. cusickii and A. lamarckii. The first two are just called Saskatoons (although I found one reference that called A. alnifolia Alder-leaf Saskatoon) and I believe the difference between them is that one flowers/fruits two weeks earlier than the other. The other species' common name is Lamarck's Serviceberry or Juneberry and seems to be a hybridized escapee from cultivation. Lots of other species in other areas, though. A. laevis is Alleghany Servicberry. A. stolonifera is Running Servicberry. A. canadensis is Shadbush. A. arborea is Downy Serviceberry. I found another website that said they are growing two species of June Berry, A. alnifolia and A. canadensis. I guess it just depends on the species that is local to your area as to what they are called but all seem to be species of Amelanchier.

    I'm not in the habit of eating chokecherry pits but I have had pits in cherry pies and have occasionally swallowed pits when eating fresh sweet cherries. As I recall, they pass right on through the digestive tract in one piece. Stomach acids don't dissolve the shell enough to let the kernel come in contact with those acids that could release the cyanogenic glycosides. I think the only danger is if the shells are crushed. If you had raw pits in your smoothie, that might crack the pits enough to let the kernel be exposed, but it would have to be a pretty powerful blender to break them. The lethal dose of cyanide is 200 mg in an adult. 1 ounce of cherry kernels (no shells) would contain about 50 mg. So probably enough to make you sick but maybe enough to be toxic to a child. That's a lot of pits, though, especially shelled. Cyanide evaporates at 78F which is quite low, lower than body temp. But the cyanide has no place to evaporate to once it is inside your body. Once cooked, in pies or other baked goods, they should be fine. Kernels that are cooked before being ground should also be fine. But I will do some more research to verify that.

  • marjstratton
    marjstratton Posts: 1,132 ✭✭✭✭

    Years ago, my sister and brother-in-law pick a bunch of chokecherries, and wanted me to make wine with them. It took a lot of sugar, but the end result was fairly good.