Wild cherries are one of the most widespread wild shrubs throughout all of North America, according to botanists. The Prunus genus not only includes all wild and domestic cherries, but also nectarines, peaches, plums, and almonds. This is a large group with mostly edible flesh, and seeds that can be either toxic or edible once processed.
These fruits have been used for food for a very long time. One of the first written historical accounts of the Southern California indigenous people eating wild cherries comes to us from Father Junipero Serra, who passed through the San Gabriel Valley area in July of 1769. He noted that the local Indians (the Gabrielinos) used various fruits such as cherries, grass seeds, and other wild seeds, etc.
Identifying Wild Cherry
Many cherry bushes or trees are evergreen, meaning that they never drop their leaves in the winter. These often resemble holly, and hikers often guess that they are looking at holly bush. When I am conducting a field trip teaching about the uses of 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 that characteristic odor. Most agree that the odor resembles bitter almond extract used in cakes. In fact, this sweet odor is from the presence of hydrocyanic acid (cyanide). This is why you do not make tea from the leaves.
Cherry fruits generally mature in late summer, so if you’re hiking around these bushes in late summer, there will invariably be fruit on the bush. Some will be ripe enough to taste. Most people —– like my hiking students — can look at the fruit, and guess that it is 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 die. 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 is not identical to commercial farm-grown cherries. There isn’t quite as much sugar in the wild cherries, and they have a bitter under-flavor and a tartness that makes them uniquely enjoyable, especially when you’re in the back country with meager food rations. After a few bites, someone will guess that they are eating a cherry.
As with the commercial cherry, this fruit consists of a single large seed which is covered in the edible flesh. In wet years, there is a thicker, sweeter layer of pulp around the large seed. In dryer years, the pulp layer is thin — even paper-thin in drought years.
Leaves of wild cherry tree.
One July when I was leading a small group of hikers to explore some remote sites deep in the Angeles National Forest, we rested in the shade of a large hillside to get a drink. After everyone had a drink from their canteen, and had rested for a few minutes, I noticed that the tree we were resting under was full of red fruit.
“Hey,” I said to everyone, “look at all those fruits. Does anyone know what they are?” Everyone looked up with great interest, and one man picked one fruit off the tree and examined it. “Hmm,” the man replied. “It kinda looks like a cherry, but not quite.” I laughed.
“Yes,” I said with excitement. “It’s a native wild cherry.” I explained that the wild cherry is not 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 seed. Everyone laughed, and then began to taste the fruits. The fruits were ripe, sweet, and slightly darker in color that a farm-grown cherry.
Before we continued on our hike, everyone ate about 10 of these sweet and delicious fruits.
On another occasion, I was taking a late August hike in remote hills in a Southern California forest on a trail I’d never been on before. There was no water along the four mile, uphill road that eventually led to one of the old, now-abandoned fire-lookout stations. Though I foolishly neglected to bring along a canteen, I collected many of the ripe and very sweet wild cherries along the trail, and I ate them sparingly along the way. I ate them sparingly, because if you consume a lot of the fruits raw, they can sometimes have a laxative effect. I ate about three dozen fruits over the course of about three hours, and suffered no laxative results.
Food Foraging and Processing Wild Cherries
Wild cherry is a common, widespread plant throughout North America, and it’s common where I live in California. People are often surprised to learn that wild cherries are so common in the West, because they do not think of this semi-desert area which rarely gets frosts as being able to support cherries. Yet, these varieties are well adapted to this climate, with deep roots, and thick — almost waxy — leaves so it can survive periods of drought.
And though the indigenous Indian population certainly enjoyed the pulp of these cherries in the past, they considered the seed as the more important food source. Seeds were saved, and their thin shells removed. There is a solid pulp inside the pit, just the same as there is with the store-bought cherry pits. 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 hydrocyanic acid is similar to that of acorns: You shell the seeds, and boil the pulp for about half an hour, changing the water a few times. Generally, you will not need to process cherry seeds as long as acorns.In fact, three boilings of cherry seeds are sufficient 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 cyanide boils off.” The final product is then ground into flour, and mixed into breads, pancakes, soups, or other mush-type dishes. It is good, and is a sweet flour.
If you want to try this, you first have to eat the flesh, and then shell the cherry seeds. Then the seeds can be boiled whole, changing the water at least three times. Then they can be simply eaten as they are, or ground into a flour. This flour is then blended with wheat to make little pancakes.
Traditional Uses for Wild Cherry
The Cahuilla people of the desert in the vicinity of Palm Springs called this plant cha-mish, and today refer to it as a chokecherry. They did not typically use the leached seed for breads, but almost exclusively for soups or mush. Sometimes, for the purposes of storage, they made the meal into little cakes. When dried, they were quite hard and black. They could then be stored a long time, and would be reconstituted in water before eating.
One form of pemmican was also made by adding the fruit of these chokecherries with deer or elk meat. Dr. James Adams adds applesauce to a cherry seed mush that he makes, and he reports that all his students enjoy it.
The inner bark of the wild cherries was also used for its medicinal value. A tea from the bark was used for 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 in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1820 as a sedative.
People of the 1800s and earlier would make syrup and soup from the cherries and use it as a medicine for whooping cough. The Miwok Indians of Northern California believed that eating the raw fruit was good for the voice. The bark of the cherries has been used extensively in cough medicines. The use of cherry fruit or bark in cough medicines was not just for flavor.
But like with so many old-fashioned medicinal remedies of the past, the modern counterparts that are now sold in stores are typically all sugar and artificial flavors. Thus, horehound candy rarely has horehound in it, marshmallows have no marshmallow extract, and even the “cherry” cough medicines do not always have real cherry in it. The price we have paid for our “advanced culture” is using more sugar, and concomitant health problems — but that is another topic.
This widespread plant was also used as a source of wood for various projects also. Long, straight branches of the various wild cherries are often used for making archery bows, backrests, baby cradles, and various other crafts.
Growing Wild Cherry in the Home Garden
If you prefer to grow native shrubs and trees in your yard rather than exotics, you might seriously consider growing wild cherries. With its shiny leaves, the cherry is an attractive plant. The leaf shape of the common holly-leaf cherry (P. Ilicifolia) is very much like a camelia leaf, a simple ovate to round leaf with fine teeth along the margin.
In the spring, many white flowers develop, and as the summer progresses, you will see many small green cherries as they develop. The fruits turn pink, then red, and then nearly black when they are ripe and at their best.
It’s easy to grow your own cherry trees. The seed readily sprouts, and I have occasionally kept the wild seeds which had particularly large or tasty fruits, and planted them in my yard or in pots. I have several that sprouted and are now taller that I am, though I have not yet had fruit crops from these.
Though great as a trail nibble, 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, juices, and even ice cream.
Keep in mind when you are collecting your wild cherries that bears enjoy this fruit also. We’ve often observed abundant cherries in bear scat. So be mindful and alert when you’re in wilderness areas during cherry season.
Vickie showing the whole seed in bag and shelled seed in bowl.
Recipes for Wild Cherries
Wild cherry jam. You can make a wild cherry jam following a standard jam recipe. Begin with at least five cups of cherry fruits, which should be deseeded. The flesh is then put into a pot with just a little water. A cup of sugar is added — and you can add one of the more healthful sugars rather than adding white sugar. Add the juice of one lemon. Then cook it for about an hour or more, until it gets thick, and until it gets to 220 degrees f. Then put this into sterilized jars, and follow the standard procedure for canning. (If you’re uncertain how to do proper canning, get a book on home canning or check a website on the topic.)
Cooling wild cherry drink. Begin with approximately five cups of ripe wild cherries. Remove stems. Place them all in a pot and cover with spring water, or filtered water. Bring to a boil, and gently mash the fruits. Let the mix simmer about half an hour. Strain the liquid through a colander or cloth. Sweeten with honey if desired, and serve chilled.
Cherry seed meal. Most of the indigenous tribes of California used the shelled seed as a porridge or meal. The flesh was used by many, added to pemmican mixes for the sugar content. Stews, jams, and jellies were also made from the fresh fruits.
Christopher Nyerges has been leading Wild Food Outings since 1974. He is the author of Nuts and Berries of California, Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Foraging California, Extreme Simplicity, and other books. For a schedule of his classes, and information about his books, contact School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or on-line at School of Self-Reliance.
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