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One July, when I was leading a small group of hikers to explore some remote sites deep in Angeles National Forest, we rested in the shade of a large hillside for a water break. After everyone had a drink from their canteens, I noticed that the tree we were resting under was full of red fruit.
“Hey,” I called to everyone, “look at all those fruits. Does anyone know what they are?” Everyone looked up with great interest, and one man picked a fruit off the tree and examined it.
“It kind of looks like a cherry, but not quite,” he replied.
“Yes,” I said with excitement. “It’s a native wild cherry.” I explained that the wild cherry isn’t the same as the cultivated commercial cherry, but it’s closely related.
“So, is this one edible?” the man queried. I popped the dark red fruit into my mouth, chewed it, and spit out the pit. Everyone laughed, and then began to taste the fruits. The cherries were ripe, sweet, and slightly darker in color than a farm-grown cherry.
Botanists recognize that wild cherries are one of the most widespread native shrubs throughout all of North America. The Prunus genus not only includes all wild and domestic cherries, but also nectarines, peaches, plums, and almonds. This is a large group of stone fruit with mostly edible flesh, and seeds that can be either toxic or edible once processed.
Wild cherries have a remarkably long history, as people across North America have been eating and farming them for centuries. You can try your hand at tracking down wild cherries outside, or planting your own cultivars in your home garden. And whether you snack on them while on the trail or incorporate them into home-cooked dishes, wild cherries are sure to be a fruit you won’t easily forget.
On The Hunt for Wild Cherries
Wild cherry can be found easily where I live in California, but people are often surprised to learn that they’re so common in the western United States. The semi-desert area, which rarely gets frosts, seems an unlikely environment to support cherries. Yet, these cultivars adapt well, with deep roots and thick, almost-waxy leaves that can survive periods of drought.
Many cherry bushes or trees are evergreen, meaning they retain their green color year-round and never drop their leaves in winter. These cultivars can resemble holly bush. When I’m conducting a field trip teaching about native wild plants, I ask my students to take a cherry leaf and crush it. If they wait a few seconds, they can get a whiff of a characteristic odor. Most agree that the odor resembles the bitter almond extract used in baked goods. In fact, this sweet odor is from the presence of hydrocyanic acid, better known as cyanide. This is why you don’t make tea from the leaves.
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Cherry fruits generally mature in late summer, so if you’re hiking near these bushes during this season, there will invariably be fruit on the bush. Some of the bushes will have cherry fruits ripe enough to taste.
Most people with formal knowledge — like my hiking students — can look at the fruit and guess that it’s edible. However, I strongly urge you to never assume any wild berry or plant is edible simply because you subjectively think, “It looks edible.” That can be a quick way to get sick, or even die. To avoid this, never eat any wild plant if you haven’t positively identified it as an edible species.
When I find a ripe cherry fruit, I typically sample it and then let my students taste one before I tell them what it is. The taste isn’t identical to commercial farm-grown cherries. There isn’t quite as much sugar in wild cherries, and they have a bitter undertone and a tartness that makes them uniquely enjoyable (especially when you’re in the backcountry with meager food rations).
On one such occasion, I was taking a late August hike in the remote hills in a Southern California forest, on a trail I’d never taken before. There was no water along the 4-mile, uphill road that eventually led to one of the old fire-lookout stations. Though I foolishly neglected to bring along a canteen, I collected and ate many of the ripe and very sweet wild cherries along the trail. I ate them sparingly, though, because consuming a lot of the fruits raw can sometimes have a laxative effect. I ate about three dozen fruits over the course of about three hours, and suffered no laxative results.
Keep in mind when you’re collecting your wild cherries that humans aren’t the only ones who enjoy this fruit. Birds and small mammals seek these fruits out as well, so be kind and avoid overpicking from your source. In addition to the prey animals, we’ve often observed abundant cherries in bear scat. Always be mindful and alert when you’re in wilderness areas during cherry season.
Processing Wild Cherries
Wild cherries have been a food source for hundreds of years. One of the first written historical accounts comes to us from Father Junipero Serra, who witnessed the Southern California indigenous people eating wild cherries as he passed through the San Gabriel Valley area in July 1769. He noted that a local Native American tribe, the Gabrielinos, ate various fruits, such as cherries, as well as grass seeds, nuts, and other wild edibles.
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Although the indigenous population certainly enjoyed the pulp of these cherries in the past, they considered the seed the more important food source. Seeds were saved, and the thin shells removed. As with the commercial cherry, this wild fruit consists of a single pit, which encases the fruit’s seed at the center, surrounded by edible flesh. In wet years, there’s a thicker, sweeter layer of pulp around the pit. In dry years, the pulp layer is thin, even paper-thin in drought years. When you chew on that pulp, you’ll find a pleasant combination of that almondy-bitterness and sweetness. Though it might be OK to nibble on a few, these seeds were always shelled and leached if substantial amounts were going to be consumed.
The process of removing the cyanide from the seeds is similar to that of removing tannins in acorns: You shell the seeds, and boil the pulp for about half an hour, changing the water a few times. Generally, you won’t need to process cherry seeds as long as acorns. In fact, boiling cherry seeds three times is sufficient enough to render them safe to eat. According to Dr. James Adams, co-author of Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, “Boiling the mashed cherry pits in water for about 30 minutes destroys all the cyanide.” The final product is then ground into a tasty, sweet, fiber-filled flour, and mixed into breads, pancakes, soups, or other porridge-like dishes.
Wild Cherry: A Versatile Tradition
The people of the Cahuilla tribe, located in the vicinity of Palm Springs, California, called their local cherry plant cha-mish, and today refer to it as chokecherry. They typically used the leached seed almost exclusively for soups or mush. Sometimes, for the purposes of storage, they made the meal into little cakes. Pemmican, a mixture of fruits and fats, was made by adding the fruit of these chokecherries to deer or elk meat.
The inner bark of wild cherry trees was used for its medicinal value. A tea from the bark was used to treat numerous ailments, including fever, diarrhea, stomach inflammations, and — among the Cherokee — the tea was said to help relieve the pain of labor during childbirth. This medicine was also listed as a sedative in the U.S. Pharmacopeia from 1820 until the 1970s.
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The Miwok people of Northern California believed that eating the raw fruit was good for the voice. Cherry tree bark has been used extensively in cough medicines for its flavor and medicinal benefits. But like so many antiquated medicinal remedies, any modern counterparts only reference past plant medicine and instead, contain artificial flavors.
Beyond its culinary capabilities and medicinal properties, wild cherry was a source of wood. Long, straight branches of wild cherry trees were great for making archery bows, backrests, baby cradles, and various other crafts.
From The Garden to the Plate
If you prefer to grow native shrubs and trees in your yard rather than exotics, you might seriously consider growing wild cherry cultivars. With its shiny leaves, the cherry is an attractive plant. The leaf shape of the common Hollyleaf cherry (P. Ilicifolia) resembles a camellia leaf; a simple ovate to round leaf with fine teeth along the margin.
In spring, white flowers develop on the plants, and as summer progresses, you’ll see many small green cherries emerge. The fruits turn pink, then red, and then nearly black when they’re ripe and at their tastiest.
It’s easy to grow your own cherry trees. The seed readily sprouts, and I’ve occasionally kept the wild seeds that had particularly large or tasty fruits and planted them in my yard or in pots. I have several that sprouted and are now taller than me, but I’ve yet to have fruit crops from these.
Though great as a trail ration, there are many recipes that you can make from the seeds’ pulp and the deseeded fruit. Uses for the fruit include jams and jellies, fruit pemmican (a paste of dry ground fruit or meat), juices, and even ice cream.
Christopher Nyerges has been leading Wild Food Outings since 1974. He’s the author of Nuts and Berries of California, Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Foraging California, Extreme Simplicity, and more. For a schedule of his classes, and information about his books, contact School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, California, 90041, or online at Christopher Nyerges.