Wild Cherries: A Widespread and Tasty Summer Fruit

| 8/1/2018 9:42:00 AM


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.

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