Prunus virginiana, Latin for “plum of Virginia”, is better known as, the Choke Cherry! This tart little berry, with the pit in the center, is considered to be one of the superfruits like blueberries and the acai berry. They are rich in antioxidants, high in vitamin C, and while bitter if you eat them straight off the tree, they are wonderful and tasty to cook with.
They grow on trees and shrubs that are usually found alongside roads, near rivers and streams. August and September are the best times to pick Choke Cherries, even though they will sometimes appear to be ripe as early as July…wait until at least August, appearances aren’t everything with the Choke Cherry.
The Choke Cherry grows in clusters on their branches (they remind me of the way grapes grow). Their color can vary, but the ones that we were picking were anywhere from a dark red to almost black.
To harvest them, the easiest way I found, was to hold the cluster in your hand, and starting at the top, just run your hand down the fruit. They fall off easily and without damage.
We found a few trees along the side of the road, and armed with bowls for collecting, we started gathering as many as we could. The fact that we picked the hottest part of the day, didn’t help, but we were able to get under the trees to find a little shade while we harvested 🙂
By the time we were done, we had two bowls full (not to mention purple fingers and twigs in our hair). In all, we were able to pick over 5 pounds of choke cherries in less than half an hour. That’s pretty good!
We decided we would make some Choke Cherry Jelly with them, and if enough were left over, we would make some syrup as well.
The first thing we did (after weighing our berries), was wash them and rid them of any debris like twigs or leaves. We didn’t worry too much about the tiny little stems. Since it was jelly, we would be straining them anyway.
After washing them, we placed them in a large stock pot and filled it with water (just until it covered the berries by about 2 inches). We brought the water to boiling, and cooked them for about 15 minutes, until they were soft and falling free from their pits. *When eating or cooking with Choke Cherries, avoid breaking the pit open – it contains levels of cyanide which can cause illness.
We then strained them to extract the juice.
I will say, that initially we put the first couple of ladle scoops directly into the jelly sleeve. You do not want to squeeze the sleeve to get the juice out (if you do, you squeeze fine particles out of the sleeve along with the juice), and it just didn’t seem like the juice was filtering through at all.
We then decided to go to a 2-step filtration system. We ladled the cherries into a wire mesh strainer first. When the juice from that strainer was finished, we poured it into the cloth sleeve.
It still drained slowly, but if we maneuvered the sleeve around, the juice was extracted, leaving the fine particles behind.
Once we strained the juice, we covered it, and placed it in the refrigerator overnight. The hope was that, if any fine particles did get through, they would sink to the bottom overnight.
The next day, we sterilized jars, lids and bands.
Fired up the canning pot to get the water boiling, and started on the actual jelly.
Choke Cherry Jelly
3 cups Choke Cherry juice
6 1/2 cups sugar
1 package pectin (we used powdered, but you can also use liquid)
In a large stockpot, place your juice and your sugar. Stir until combined. Bring to a boil.
Once it is boiling, add your pectin.
Stir to mix in. Bring back to a rolling boil, and boil for 1 minute. Stir constantly!
Carefully ladle into clean, hot jars. Make sure the rim is free from any jelly, place lid and band on jar.
Once all jars are filled, place jars into the canner.
Can for 15 minutes. Remove from canner and move to a cooling area.
The lids should begin to pop as they begin to cool.
That’s it! Tie a ribbon around the jar and give it as a gift! It is not only a colorful jelly, it is one of the tastiest, sweet jellies you will make from wild berries!
Or…keep it for yourself. No one is going to tell if you just sit right down and eat it straight out of the jar with a spoon… 🙂