prunus virginiana MM
Photo courtesy of Marty Michener

Choke Cherry, Prunus virginiana

Family: Rosaceae, the Rose Family

Description: Native shrub or small tree. Leaves toothed, widest above the middle, lighter underneath. Leaf petioles have 2 glands near base of the blade, twigs have an unpleasant bitter-almond odor when scratched, fruit a red-purple drupe 6-10mm in diameter, arranged as a drooping raceme

Abundance: Common

Habitat: Forest and field edges

Plant Parts Used: Fruit, bark

Food: Jams, jellies, juices

Medicine: Coughs

Like any cherry, choke cherries can be made into jams, jellies, juices, or dried for storage. The seeds must be removed, which can be done by crushing and straining the fruits. Ray suggests using maple syrup or honey in jellies to counter choke cherry’s natural bitterness. Terry-Anya and Sue also make jellies out of the fruits. Sue makes a choke cherry juice by simmering the fruits for 20 minutes then letting them stand for another 20 minutes. The juice is then strained through a colander and cloth and sweetened with honey. She does not mash the berries as that makes the juice sludgy and impossible to strain. A beautiful, clear pink, delicious cherry-flavored juice is the result of this process. If the fruits are cooked longer than 20 minutes, some of the undesirable substances in the pit can be leached into the juice and change the flavor and composition of the drink which could cause vomiting.

Choke cherry, long known for its use for treating coughs, can be used to make cough syrup. Ray makes such an extract by packing the inner bark in a jar of honey and setting it in the sun for days or weeks, depending on the strength desired. The Okanagan-Colville, Iroquois, and Nlaka’pamux used a decoction of choke cherry branches as a cough syrup. The Algonquin would make an infusion of choke cherry bark and sweet flag, Acorus calamus, as a cough medicine. As a sore throat remedy, the Blackfoot used the fruit juice and the Chippewa used a decoction of the inner bark.

Caution: Much of this plant contains a cyanide-producing compound, so when eating the fruit, one must not eat the seeds.

Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.


  • Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
  • Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
  • Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2009. Print.
  • Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
  • Szwed, Sue. Personal interview. 12 Nov. 2010.
  • Turner, Nancy J., and Patrick Von Aderkas. The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms. Portland: Timber, 2009. Print.