Chokecherry is, in my perspective, the most interesting wild, native, ethnic food that can be found in all of Idaho. This fruit has historical and cultural meaning, is a great landscaping plant, has the potential for death, and is delicious.
Let’s start by talking about pemmican. Prunus virginiana is the genus and species of our local, native bush otherwise known as the chokecherry. Since it is local and native this food item was gathered by Native Americans and added to the mixture that became pemmican.
Don’t know what pemmican is? Pemmican was the mainstay of native cultures and began with a slab of elk or buffalo meat. Native Americans then pounded it into a jerky, then added lard and then added chokecherries for sweetener.This became the primary winter food source.
What other things can we do with chokecherry? Many people make syrups, jams, pies or maybe even ice cream with the chokecherry. Birds love not just hanging out in the chokecherry bushes, but enjoy eating the chokecherry too.
Many Idahoans purchase it for use in their landscaping as it makes a great shade bush that is native and has so many other uses. You can identify it on hikes to impress your friends! Make sure you warn them though… and keep reading!
Chokecherry got it’s common name because it has an astringent flavor before it is cooked or dried, some say, but I would wager a guess that it’s called Chokecherry because if you eat the leaves or seeds you will be poisoned by hydrocyanic acid, also known as cyanide. Cyanide poisoning causes convulsions and choking.
The chokecherry covered the majority of the plains in North American, and was thereby used in a lot of medicines in many tribes. The Sioux used the roots to stop bleeding. There have been so many medicinal uses of chokecherry over time – from a diarrhea remedy on the Lewis and Clark expedition to current cancer research – that it would be best for me to just quote from the USDA document on the subject.
Prepare to be amazed at this sampling of the many uses of chokecherry in all the different cultures, and carefully enjoy this wild plant when you find it on your hikes!
From the USDA Plant Guide Prunus virginiana L.
The Arika women would drink the berry juice to stop post-partum hemorrhage.
The Blackfeet drank berry juice for diarrhea and sore throats. An infusion of the cambium layer mixed with Saskatoon serviceberry (Amelanchier almifolia) was taken as a general purge treatment and to lactating mothers so they could pass on the medicinal qualities to the nursing baby. They also used it in an enema solution for their children. Willow (Salix spp.) tea was used to counteract the laxative effect of chokecherry.
The Cherokees used chokecherry in the following ways: mixed chokecherry with hazel alder (Alnus serrulata), downy rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens), Canadian wildginger (Asarum canadense) and yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) to make a blood tonic. An infusion made from boiled bark was given for coughs, laryngitis, chills, ague, fevers and to loosen phlegm. Warm chokecherry tea was given to women when labor pains began. The root bark is a good astringent and was mixed with water and used as a rinse for open sores and old skin ulcers. The tree bark of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) was added to corn whiskey and used to treat for measles. The fruit was boiled and eaten to treat for bloody bowels. The branches and leaves were one of six ingredients burned in sweat lodges to treat for indigestion and jaundice.
The Cheyenne would gather the immature fruit, dry it in the sun, pulverize it and use it as a treatment for diarrhea.
The Paiutes made a medicinal tea from the leaves and twigs to treat colds and rheumatism.
The Sioux chewed the dried roots and then placed this poultice in open wounds to stop the bleeding. The Sioux, Crows, Gros Ventres and others made a bark tea to cure stomach aches, diarrhea and dysentery. The Crows also used the bark to cleanse sores and burns.
In the 19th century medical doctors used many concoctions of chokecherry leaves and bark to treat a number of ailments. Chokecherry bark was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1820 to 1970. It is still listed as a pharmaceutical aid, a flavor agent for liquid medicines. Among the health complaints treated were debility, hectic fever, irritative dyspepsia, irritability of the nervous system, fever, pleurisy, whooping cough, tuberculosis, pneumonia, sore throats and gastrointestinal problems. It was recommended as a rinse on burns, open sores, cankers and skin ulcers. Pharmaceutical books at that time cautioned against boiling any mixture using chokecherry leaves or bark because it would drive off the medicinal properties. The bark was used as a flavoring agent in many cough syrups. In 1834, Dr. Proctor first identified the bark as containing prussic acid.