Late last summer, during a long weekend of hiking and mountain biking around Winthrop, my wife, Martha, and I took a swim in one of the local lakes to cool off before embarking on the four-hour drive home. The water was refreshing and lovely, but what really caught our attention was the abundance of a wine-red fruit growing along the shoreline.
Chokecherries. The place was loaded with them.
We found some plastic grocery bags in our car’s glove box, reserved for just such a spontaneous purpose, and filled them in no time. Once home, we destemmed our bounty and dumped it all—several pounds’ worth—in a pot to simmer on the stove top. The kitchen soon smelled sweet, and before nightfall we had enough chokecherry jelly to send jars to all our relatives for the holidays. Bam! Christmas shopping done!
The jelly was a stunning translucent fuchsia color that hardly seemed possible without the addition of a commercial dye. It made a beautiful gift and, with its combination of sweet and tart cherry flavor, was the perfect accompaniment to an appetizer cheese plate.
The chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is a shrubby tree that grows across much of the northern tier of North America. Here in Washington, the plant prefers sunny exposures in the foothills and canyons of the eastern part of the state, often near water, along roadways or at the edges of pastures and cultivated fields, where it will sometimes form dense thickets. It flowers in the spring and then bears stone fruits the size of large blueberries in late summer.
Chokecherries turn deeper shades of red as they ripen in late summer until they’re nearly purple or black. But be warned: If you wait to harvest them at their darkest and ripest, you may lose out to the wildlife. Deer, bears and birds all love chokecherries, and you will see flocks of robins descend on the trees during fall migration to pick them clean. We picked our batch before peak ripeness, when the fruits were a scarlet red, and the jelly was still excellent, and a little tart, the way we like it.
Chokecherries have been an important part of Native American diets in the Pacific Northwest since time immemorial. At a First Foods ceremony on the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, Oregon, I ate chokecherries as part of a cornucopia of traditional foods, including salmon, venison, lamprey eel, huckleberry and three types of roots. The chokecherries had been preserved from the previous summer’s harvest in a sweet syrup.
Don’t let the name fool you. Yes, fresh off the vine, the chokecherry earns its moniker with an astringent, mouth-puckering taste. But with a little processing and some sugar, you can make a colorful jelly, pie or syrup from this abundant native fruit that will impress your friends.
Photograph by Langdon Cook
2+ pounds chokecherries
5 cups sugar
1 package (1.75 ounces) dry pectin
1/2 cup lemon juice
Clean and stem chokecherries. (Pits will be removed later when the liquid is strained.) Barely cover with water in a nonreactive stockpot and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes, occasionally mashing softened chokecherries with a potato masher. Allow to cool, then strain juice through a cheesecloth or jelly bag. Figure about 2 cups of juice per pound of chokecherries.
Return 4 cups chokecherry juice to pot, along with pectin and lemon juice. Bring to boil and add sugar, stirring. After a minute of hard boiling (be careful not to let it foam over), reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring.
Remove from heat and skim foam. Ladle into sterilized canning jars (using 6-ounce jars will yield about a dozen jars of jelly), leaving 1/2 inch of space at top, and secure lids. Process jars in hot water bath for 10 minutes.