Scientific name: Prunus virginiana
Native American names: Lakota called them Canpa’humeaning bitterwood stem
Paiute name for the chokecherry “Daw-esha-boi”
Plant family: Rosaceae (Rose family)
Description: The chokecherry is a deciduous tree and ranges from 10 to 25 feet in height. It has green leaves that are wide, egg-shaped, and sharp-toothed. The midrib of the leaf is hairless. The flowers are white, in the thicker raceme. The fruits are small berries that are a reddish purple color. They appear darker the riper they are. The bark is non-aromatic and is a smooth, reddish brown color on the young branches and blackish and rugged on the mature trees. The plant is deciduous.
Habitat and range: The chokecherry is found in rich, rather moist soils, in thickets or on the border of woods and on shores. It tolerates wet or dry conditions and thrives upon disturbance. Although it can tolerate moderate shade, it requires a generous dose of sunlight t o thrive and bear copious amounts of fruit. The chokecherry is also locally abundant in some dry, open woodlands, pine barrens, cutovers, and swamps. It is native to North America, and is often thought of as one of the most widespread trees in North America. It is found from Newfoundland to British Colombia, through all but the most northern of our boreal forests. It ranges across the northern half of the United States, being found in the Appalachians south to Georgia and in the Rockies through southern Arizona and New Mexico.
Historical and contemporary uses
Historically, chokecherry was a staple food item for many tribes in North America, and was often the most important food in their diet. The fruit was collected by the Pawnee, Omaha, Osage, Kiowa, Assiniboin, Dakota, Lakota, Arikara, Utes, Mandan, Crow, Cheyenne, Hidatsa, and Blackfoot tribes; it was most often pounded with the seeds included, then dried in the sun. The berries were also used to make jam, jelly, wine, and syrup. The wood was traditionally used by the natives for furniture making; specifically in making handles and the shredded bark for decorating basket rims, while the berries were especially good for making dyes. Chokecherry has multiple medicinal properties. Traditionally, the Native Americans used it as a sedative to assist in relieving the pains of labor and childbirth. The berries in a dried powder form could be used as a remedy for weakness of the stomach with irritation, such as ulcers, gastritis, colitis, dyspepsia, diarrhea, and dysentery. The bark, collected in the fall, is one of the best herbs for respiratory complaints. It soothes the respiratory nerves and relieves coughs, bronchitis, scrofula, fever and asthma.
In modern times, this wild cherry makes fine preserves, juice, jelly, and syrup. Chokecherry leather is still a unique, convenient, healthy, and tasty snack just as it was long ago. We know chokecherry best as an ingredient in cough medicine; wild cherry cough drops and wild cherry syrup are still wintertime best sellers everywhere.