Many people do not realize cherry and some other very important commercial fruit trees (apple, peach, plum, apricot, nectarines, and almonds) are in the rose family. Anthropologists indicate cherries have been harvested in Eurasia from 4,000 to 5,000 B.C. In 1629, chokecherry was imported to England where it has been cultivated as an ornamental. It was first cultivated in North America as an orchard crop in 1724.
The seeds are toxic due to production of hydrocyanic acid in the leaves, stems and seeds. The almond nuts are treated to deactivate the poisonous glycosides before they are put on the market. Cases of illness and deaths have been traced back to eating the seeds of these trees.
Conservation: Chokecherry is used extensively in shelterbelts, windbreaks, wildlife habitat and mass plantings for erosion control. Chokecherry does well in riparian area planting. It provides thermal cover over the water and works well in stabilizing streambanks. It has been used on disturbed sites such as mined land reclamation, highway right-of-ways and construction sites. It is a good erosion control plant because it can form thickets and spread by rhizomes.
Wildlife: Chokecherry is important to many wildlife animals. Birds, rabbits, hares, rodents and bears all seek out and eat its fruit. It provides food, cover and nesting habitat for a variety of birds. Birds will also take advantage of its growth form for cover and nesting habitat. It is used extensively by deer as a browse source in the winter. The early spring flowers provide an important source of nectar for butterflies, honeybees and ants.
Food: The common name, chokecherry, came from the bitter and astringent taste of the fruit. The fruit was a staple for numerous Indian tribes across the North American continent, especially to tribes who lived on the plains and prairies. Chokecherries were routinely cooked before they were eaten or dried thoroughly. Both methods served to break down any formation of prussic acid contained in the stone pits. Drying chokecherries improves their taste by sweetening them, or at the very least, getting rid of the naturally occurring bitter taste. Chokecherries were consumed in three ways by Indians. The fruit and/or juice were eaten. Whole cherries, including pulp, skin and stone, were pulverized into a pulp, shaped into balls and dried in the sun. Fruit balls could be stored for future use. Either boiling or drying the fruit will neutralize the naturally occurring hydrocyanic acid. The most important use was as part of the recipe for pemmican, or mince-meat. Pemmican was made by getting a slice of dried meat (bison was preferred over elk, deer or antelope) and pounding it with a stone until it had a fine texture. Bone marrow and animal lard were then heated and mixed with the meat. Crushed chokecherries were then added. Pemmican would be cached as a winter food. Some form of pemmican was a mainstay for all plains tribes. Chokecherry butter was made by cooking the mature fruit, straining out the seed and skins, mixing this poultice with an equal quantity of wild plums or crabapples and adding sugar. The bark was brewed for a tea drink. Many tribes would add the fruits to soups and stews as flavoring and as a thickening agent. A green branch was speared through a meat slab while it was cooking to add spice to the taste.
Likewise, pioneers and settlers came to realize its food value. Mature fruits are still collected today and used to make jellies, jams, pie-fillings, syrups, sauces and wines.
Like many plants and animals which were vital to their survival some tribes used parts of the chokecherry plant in their rituals. A green dye was derived from the leaves, inner bark and immature fruit. A purplish-red dye was derived from the ripe fruit. The Cheyenne used the limbs to make arrow shafts and bows. The Crows used it for tipi stakes and pins. Mountain men washed their steel traps in water boiled with the bark to remove the scent. It is speculated many tribes planted seeds in places they frequented to ensure a supply of chokecherries was always available.
Chokecherry is being promoted for planting as a minor crop in the prairie provinces of Canada for juice production. Estimated fruit production potential is 15,000 pounds per acre from mature plants. There is a significant research effort in Canada for developing fruit producing cultivars.
Landscaping: In some parts of the U.S., chokecherry is a popular ornamental. Its quick growth, mature size, attractive white flowers in the spring and strong, sweet and almond-like aroma fragrance make it a good yard tree in urban neighborhoods. Cultivars are planted for ornamentals rather than the native species. All native chokecherry varieties have a great tendency to sucker, which can create problems in lawn care. Most cultivated varieties do not have this suckering trait while producing more attractive flowers and/or larger fruit. The fruit also attracts a diverse population of birds for a number of weeks. Chokecherries can be a component in a screen or noise barrier planting.
Ethnobotany: Chokecherry covered a large geographic range in North America, so a majority of tribes used it to treat a variety of health problems. It was valued especially for its astringent properties and beneficial effect upon the respiratory system.
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.
In their journals, Lewis and Clark recorded that while camped on the upper Missouri River Captain Lewis became will with abdominal cramps and fever. He made a tea from chokecherry twigs and was well the next day.
Modern medicinal research shows in small dosages hydrocyanic acid can stimulate respiration, improve digestion and gives a false sense of well-being. Some cancer research involving hydrocyanic acid is being conducted.
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