Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) in bloom near the Truckee River in May. Photo: Kelsey McCutcheon.
The name “chokecherry” might not make you want to gobble down handful after handful, but the sour fruits of this shrub are prized by birds, small mammals, and large mammals like mule deer, coyotes, and bears, which later do a return service to the bush by distributing the seeds. The leaves of the chokecherry are toxic to livestock – they contain a chemical called hydrocyanic acid (cyanide). The berries are edible by humans, and with aid of sugar, can be made into good jams, pies, baked goods, and wine. Berries can also be dehydrated and added to yogurt, cereal, deserts, cookies… (Mozingo, 1987) (Moore, 2003)
Members of the Washoe Tribe called chokecherry “tsamchit”. The Paiutes boiled the twigs and leaves of the “dongeszip” (the Paiute name for the whole bush) into a tea, and used it to treat colds and rheumatism. They cooked the berries, pitted them, and made them into “daw esha bui” (jam), or dried them and combined with elk, deer meat, and back fat to make pemmican. The berries could also be made into a red dye, or made into biscuits and fed to babies to treat stomach-aches (Murphey, 1959). The wood was used for digging sticks and arrows (Vizgirdas & Rey-Visgirdas, 2006).
Moore, M. (2003). Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West (Revised and Expanded Edition ed.). Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.
Mozingo, H. N. (1987). Shrubs of the Great Basin: A Natural History. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.
Murphey, E. V. (1959). Indian Uses of Native Plants. Fort Bragg, CA: Mendocino County Historical Society.
USDA. (2015). Prunus virginiana, Chokecherry. http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=PRVI
Vizgirdas, R. S., & Rey-Visgirdas, E. M. (2006). Wild Plants of the Sierra Nevada. Reno: University of Nevada Press.