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Foraging Wild Cherries: Discovering The Nature’s Delights

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If you were diligent enough during the spring season to take note of the locations where white flowering trees and shrubs were blooming, then you’re likely beginning to witness the fruitful results of your efforts now.

The Juneberries and mulberries have already made their appearance and departure, and it’s time to turn our attention towards hedgerows in search of stonefruits. Among these delightful offerings, one particular favorite of mine stands out—wild cherries.

Wild cherry trees possess the remarkable ability to thrive in a diverse range of environmental conditions. They often lead the successional growth of recently cleared forests or fields left to return to their natural state.

These trees exhibit rapid growth rates and impressive longevity. You can anticipate fallen branches after a bout of strong winds, utilize smaller branches or seek out a dense stand that requires thinning.

A single substantial branch can provide abundant medicinal benefits for you and your family over an extended period.

In North America, there exist several native cherry varieties that are commonly referred to as “bird cherries.” Unfortunately, many individuals mistakenly believe that these cherries are excessively bitter, sour, or even toxic.

However, these people couldn’t be more mistaken and genuinely missing out. Interestingly, the widely beloved flavor of cherry, which happens to be the most popular candy flavor worldwide, can be traced back to its origins in wild cherries.

The sight of gleaming clusters of wild cherries has captivated observers on this landmass for as long as human eyes have been present.

Birds have certainly taken notice, but humans and various other creatures have also fought to claim the first ripe cherries each summer, a tradition that has endured for generations. Chokecherries, in particular, can be found throughout the North American continent.

They are arguably the most prevalent tree species, making them an unparalleled fruit resource for humans and animals, spanning coast to coast.

Wouldn’t it be difficult to fathom that something humans have been consuming for such an extended period wouldn’t taste good?

Granted, wild cherries may possess astringent qualities straight from the tree, but you probably wouldn’t appreciate an olive or a coffee bean in their raw state either.

Like many of our beloved foods, wild cherries require a bit of tender loving care between the field and the plate to unleash the sweet and vibrant flavors we cherish. However, before anything else, you must locate these cherries and outsmart the birds in their pursuit.

Read more about Wild Strawberries: Discovering the Delightful Treat in Your Backyard

Secrets of Wild Cherries

During a landscaping project, I brought home some wild cherry tree seedlings removed from garden beds. Unintentionally, I placed them near my house and completely forgot about them.

Surprisingly, after a decade has passed, I have immensely enjoyed the shade they provide and the lively presence of insects and birds, which I can conveniently observe from my bedroom.

While confined to a sick bed, my admiration for these delightful companions grew even stronger, and I began recalling the remarkable power hidden within their bark.

I had recently depleted the last of my herbal glycerite made from cherry bark, a remedy I heavily relied upon whenever I sensed the slightest sign of a sore throat. However, it wasn’t until 2020 that I embarked on harvesting fresh cherry bark.

Nevertheless, since these trees were situated near the foundation of my home, I needed to prune them back regardless of my intentions.

Let’s delve into the profile of the wild cherry tree:

  • Common Names: Wild Cherry, Sweet Cherry, Mazzard, Gean, Crann Silin Fiain
  • Botanical Name: Prunus avium (and other Prunus spp.)
  • Family: Rosaceae (Rose)
  • Distribution: Native to Europe, particularly prevalent throughout England and Wales. While still common, its occurrence is less frequent in certain regions of Scotland and Ireland.
  • Where to Find Wild Cherry: Deciduous woodlands and hedgerows. Frequently planted in parks and along streets.
  • When to Find Wild Cherry: The fruit typically appears in early to mid-summer.

In the United Kingdom and Ireland, various cherry species can be found. The most prevalent one is the Wild or Sweet Cherry (Prunus avium), followed by Sour Cherries (Prunus cerasus) and Bird Cherries (Prunus padus).

All cherry species are edible, yet they possess distinct flavor profiles.

Towards the end of June, the fruit emerges, and one must act swiftly to outsmart the birds. The cherries often hide amidst the foliage, so it is advisable to position oneself under the tree and search for the darker ones.

However, in some cases, it may be more practical to pick slightly unripe fruit and allow them to ripen at home.

Identifying Wild Cherry

The wild cherry tree, a captivating deciduous species, possesses a straight trunk adorned with concentric rings of branching. Its bark showcases a spectrum of brown to grey hues and features distinctive “cuts” known as lenticels that embellish the trunk’s surface.

Elongated oval leaves with serrated edges grace the tree, boasting a vibrant shade of bright green, which lightens underneath.

The flowers, captivating in their beauty, present a mesmerizing array of white or pink hues, exhibiting delightful variations depending on the species or variety. As for the fruit, it entices with its round, shiny form, showcasing a rich red hue and encasing a stone at its core.

However, it is essential to be aware of wild cherry tree lookalikes. One such example is the Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera), which bears fruits similar in appearance, albeit slightly larger and available in diverse colors like red and yellow.

Cherry Plum
Credit: Wikipedia

Nonetheless, it’s important to note that all species of cherries and plums are edible and hold their own unique appeal.

Ensuring I had correctly identified the wild cherries, I conducted a thorough examination. It is worth mentioning that the Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is often mistaken as a wild cherry due to its similar characteristics.

Chokecherry
Credit: Britannica

However, familiarizing oneself with fundamental knowledge, such as distinguishing features, makes it easier to discern between the wild cherry tree, Prunus serotina, and the shrub-like Chokecherry.

The wild cherry tree thrives in various United States climates, particularly in the temperate Appalachian forests of my local region.

Curious to explore the numerous applications of cherry bark, I sought guidance from esteemed modern herbalists, including Paul Bergner, Phyllis Light, and Matthew Wood, who generously shared their wisdom and fondness for wild cherry in a captivating video presentation.

To embark on my medicine-making endeavors, I found invaluable resources in the form of an enlightening monograph by the generous jim mcdonald.

His insightful guide provided essential information and detailed recipes through his online herbal intensive, which I wholeheartedly endorse and encourage others to explore.

Immerse yourself in the captivating world of wild cherries, and unlock the boundless potential of their bark, as we delve deeper into this enchanting journey.

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Exploring the Medicinal and Culinary Wonders of Wild Cherries

With their remarkable attributes, wild cherries possess many medicinal properties that make them a treasure trove of natural remedies.

Not only are the fruit stalks known for their astringent and tonic qualities and exhibit diuretic effects, promoting overall well-being.

The versatile nature of wild cherries truly shines when it comes to culinary delights. Delicate and aromatic, the blossoms carry a subtle almond flavor that lends itself to various delectable creations.

These floral wonders can be transformed into a luscious syrup or infused in milk, imparting their essence to delightful custards.

While their larger counterparts, sweet cherries, are best enjoyed freshly plucked from the tree or added to creamy yogurt, wild cherries, though smaller in size, offer a unique allure of their own.

Their laborious pitting process may deter some, but these charming cherries are cherished for their ability to infuse drinks with their exquisite essence and serve as a key ingredient in preserves and sauces.

Indeed, the possibilities with cherry fruit are endless. From the tantalizing Hungarian Sour Cherry soup, which tantalizes the taste buds with its tangy flavors, to the harmonious pairing of cherries with game or venison terrines, culinary enthusiasts can explore many avenues.

These delightful fruits can also be transformed into delectable jams, pickles, or sweet treats like velvety panna cotta and decadent chocolate-cherry mousse.

Foraging Wild Cherries
Credit: Craighead Beringia South

When it comes to beverages, cherries take center stage yet again. Crafting cherry schnapps, known as Kirschwasser, and producing wines infused with the essence of cherry blossoms or fruit showcases the versatility of this remarkable fruit.

For those looking for a non-alcoholic twist, infusing cherries into drinks to create flavored brandies or a mock amaretto is a delightful option. And for those seeking a refreshing alternative, a simple yet delicious cherry cordial or invigorating juice can easily be concocted.

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However, it is essential to exercise caution when foraging wild cherries. Like their store-bought counterparts, the seeds or pips of wild cherries contain traces of hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous substance.

Rest assured, the quantity of this potentially harmful compound is typically minuscule and poses no significant threat. However, excessive consumption could lead to respiratory failure, so moderation is key.

Beyond their culinary and medicinal attributes, wild cherry trees play a vital ecological role. As a reliable food source for numerous birds and small mammals, these majestic trees provide nourishment while offering shelter and nesting spaces.

Their presence in the natural landscape contributes to the delicate balance of ecosystems, making wild cherries a cherished component of the environment.

Wild cherries captivate us with their multifaceted nature. Whether harnessing their healing properties or exploring their culinary potential, these delightful fruits hold a special place in our hearts and the natural world.

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Foraging of Wild Cherries

As a wild cherry enthusiast in Maine, I recently made an intriguing discovery. A patch of chokecherries I had been watching was unexpectedly picked clean, though still underripe, almost a month ahead of the usual schedule.

While picking underripe cherries is generally discouraged due to their astringency, the desire for cherries sometimes outweighs the tartness. So, I’m gearing up to start picking soon.

Among our native cherry varieties like black cherry and pin cherry, chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) reign supreme in terms of their widespread presence, practicality, productivity, and, in my opinion, delectable taste. Hence, today, I’ll be delving into the world of chokecherries.

When seeking out chokecherries, it’s best to explore the edges of various habitats such as woodlands, fields, riversides, vacant lots, and more.

I often see them nestled against thickets or hedgerows, facing sunny openings like fields, rivers, marshes, or areas of early succession growth after logging cuts. Engaging in cherry scouting along thicket edges perfectly complements shed hunting adventures.

In springtime, spotting the racemes of white, five-petaled flowers is the easiest way to identify chokecherry trees. Here in Maine, their blooms typically follow serviceberries and precede black cherries.

The next suitable time to spot chokecherries is mid to late summer, when the racemes should ideally bear spherical fruits. These fruits transform from hard and green to vibrant ruby red, eventually reaching plump, juicy blackness if they evade being devoured in their red stage.

In the eastern regions, some chokecherries fully ripen when they turn red and do not darken further, so I prefer to pick them when they’re deeply red and soft. The leaves of the chokecherry tree are simple, ovate, finely serrated, and arranged alternately on the branches.

They exhibit a dark green color on the upper surface and a muted, light-green hue on the underside. The petioles, right below the leaf base, also contain two tiny glands.

Chokecherries typically grow as either large shrubs or small trees, often forming colonies of slender, thornless trunks about the width of a wrist. Their bark displays a gray/brown color with shallow ridges and subtle horizontal lenticels.

Chokecherries
Credit: Practical Self Reliance

To differentiate them from young birch trees, scratch the thin bark of a chokecherry twig and savor the scent of almond extract. In contrast, a young birch would emit a wintergreen fragrance.

If fruits are present, gently squeeze one between your fingers—it should reveal a single pit, never multiple seeds.

Once you’ve identified chokecherries, it’s time to monitor them vigilantly, just like a waxwing bird, and gather your picking tools when they ripen.

I prefer using a cherry bucket with a harness, which is readily available at most orchard supply companies, as it is invaluable when collecting large quantities of fruit or nuts for preservation. However, any bucket or basket secured around your waist will suffice.

Equipping yourself with a branch hook featuring a foot-loop is also convenient, enabling you to bring down higher branches within reach while keeping both hands free for picking.

When chokecherries are fully ripe, they are a joy to harvest. They effortlessly detach from the stems in generous handfuls and possess enough resilience to collect several pounds in a single bucket without concern for squishing or spoilage.

Once home, I recommend winnowing out the leaves, stems, and most insects by gently pouring the cherries back and forth between buckets in front of a high-powered fan.

Following the winnowing process, give them a thorough rinse and allow them to dry. Then, store the cherries in the refrigerator in a wide, shallow container like a hotel pan. Opt for freezer bags if you prefer freezing them until you can utilize their flavorful potential.

It’s worth noting that a few days in the refrigerator or a brief overnight stay in the freezer can significantly reduce the astringency of underripe cherries, making it a highly recommended step.

Embrace the adventure of chokecherry foraging, armed with newfound knowledge on identification, picking techniques, and preparation. As you embark on this flavorful journey, may the abundance of chokecherries bring culinary possibilities and sensory delights.

Read more about Foraging for Delicacies: The Hidden Treasures of Hosta Plants

Crafting Cherry Bark Syrup

Delving into wild cherry preparations, Phyllis Light, an esteemed authority in the field, draws a mystical parallel between the tree’s scabbed-over scars and the wound healing process.

As a member of the rose family, cherries share the heart-toning qualities exhibited by many species within this botanical lineage.

You’ll need to focus on a larger branch or trunk to prepare the cherry bark. Whether to peel the inner bark alone or both the inner and outer bark depends on the specific branch you’re working with.

I chose a limb measuring 4 to 5 inches in diameter, one of the two main trunks emerging approximately a foot above the ground. Numerous smaller branches sprouted from it.

Shaving the larger trunk, I left the smaller branches, those less than 2 inches in diameter, untouched. I used pruners to cut the miniature limbs into manageable pieces suitable for stuffing into a canning jar.

As for the bark of the older branches, a draw knife became my trusted tool for delicately peeling off a thin slice of the outer bark, revealing its green underside.

Discarding this layer, I was greeted by the captivating aroma of cherry bark, enveloping my senses for hours as I meticulously peeled. You’ll know you’ve successfully stripped the white bark when the underlying wood pulp grain becomes visible on the limb.

Cherry bark has long been associated with cough syrup, so even modern formulations are often labeled cherry-flavored.

Surprisingly, the bark, not the fruits themselves, lends this characteristic taste (despite the omission of its namesake in both the fruit and bark components of these products).

I learned from Jim that a cool preparation can yield an exquisite flavor. The captivating aroma of cherry bark was akin to the scent of almond extract, captivating the senses of my entire family.

Our satisfaction grew when we experienced the soothing benefits of this simple preparation during our sore throats in 2022.

To embark on making cherry bark syrup:

  1. Begin by packing a jar with fresh bark and covering it with cold water.
  2. Allow it to infuse at room temperature for 24 to 48 hours, or until it emanates an amazing aroma and taste.
  3. If the flavor seems weak after two days, refrigerate the infusion to continue steeping without risking spoilage.
Crafting Cherry Bark Syrup
Credit: Nitty Gritty Life

However, avoid prolonging the infusion period beyond a week. If the taste remains lackluster, strain the liquid and introduce fresh bark for a second round of steeping, this time in the refrigerator. This method amplifies the extraction process.

Once the infusion achieves a robust and delightful flavor, strain the precious liquid and combine it with sugar to create a basic syrup recipe. The dosage can range from a teaspoon to as little as a milliliter, depending on the desired potency of your syrup.

Excessive sugar is typically required for shelf stability, so you might consider substituting a small amount of alcohol. Alternatively, refrigeration or even freezing can prolong the syrup’s shelf life without the need for excessive sweetness.

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Exploring Cherry Culinary Creations

Embark on your cherry journey by savoring a handful of ripe cherries straight from the bush. These initial bites will provide a foundation for understanding the flavor profile you’re working with.

Remember to discard the pits since, like other stone fruits, they contain hydrocyanic acid, also known as cyanide, but only in their raw state. However, fear not, as this acid, scientifically referred to as prussic acid, can be neutralized through drying or cooking, rendering it safe for consumption.

Indigenous North Americans had a clever method of harnessing the nutritional value of cherries. They would pound the fruit, crushing the pits open, and then dry the resulting fruit-seed mixture under the scorching sun.

This ingenious process transformed the blend into a portable, phytochemically rich, shelf-stable food, preserving the essential oils present in the seeds.

You can adopt a similar approach by creating dried cherry cakes, granola crumbles, or fruit leather, as demonstrated in a brief video by esteemed botanist Arthur Haines. Additionally, the dried pits lend a remarkable almond-like flavor that adds depth to the cherry flesh.

Across various cultures worldwide, there is a rich and diverse history of utilizing the almond essence of dried cherry pits. If you’ve ever relished the taste of amaretto or noyaux, you have experienced this delightful note.

For those who prefer to enjoy the cherry flavor without pits, the most versatile and fundamental option is cherry juice.

Simply simmer the whole cherries, covering them halfway with water, in a pot for approximately 15 minutes until the flesh softens and separates easily from the pits with a gentle stir.

Strain the mixture through a fine sieve or jelly bag, allowing it to rest in the refrigerator overnight to clarify. If desired, sweeten the juice to your liking, and relish its pure cherry essence either on its own or as a refreshing addition to other beverages.

Alternatively, freeze the juice to incorporate it into various culinary creations, from desserts to sauces.

However, my favorite way to elevate the cherry experience is by creating cherry syrup. This delightful concoction is remarkably easy to prepare, employing a technique similar to making juice but with sweeteners and vinegar.

The result is a mesmerizingly pink elixir that strikes the perfect balance between tanginess and sweetness.

Use it as a glaze for gamebirds, drizzle it over a decadent scoop of ice cream for a dessert indulgence, or let your culinary creativity flourish by exploring its versatile applications.

Cherry Culinary Creations
Credit: Culinary Hill

The Secrets of Cherry Bark: Expert Insights

When it comes to utilizing cherry bark, it’s essential to consider the wisdom shared by renowned phytochemist Lisa Ganora, as echoed by Jim McDonald in the linked article.

To prioritize safety, working with either exceptionally fresh or completely dried bark for consumption is crucial. The partially wilted state should be avoided, as it may lead to undesirable chemical changes in the bark, hindering the intended pathways we seek.

I delve into cherry bark this spring because, unlike most tree barks typically harvested in winter or early spring before the trees leaf out, cherry bark exhibits superior flavor and enhanced digestibility when collected after flowering.

As always, I emphasize the importance of consulting a qualified botanist to ensure you have identified the correct cherry tree.

Express gratitude for the marvels of plant growth and the gifts it bestows, and delight in discovering nature’s almond-flavored aid right in your backyard.

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