THE WILD CHERRY:
Native Americans processed and ate the pits
of this widespread and tasty summer fruit
Nyerges has been leading Wild Food Outings since 1974. He is the author of 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 www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.
Wild cherry is a common, widespread plant throughout North America. Where I live in Southern California, there are five native species of wild cherry found throughout the Pacific Coast region. People are surprised 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.
Wild cherries are believed to be the most widespread wild shrub throughout all of North America. The Prunus genus not only includes all wild and domestic cherries, but also nectarines, peaches, plums, and almonds.
One of the first historical accounts of the local indigenous people eating wild cherries comes to us from Father Junipero Serra, who passed through the San Gabriel Valley area of Southern California in July of 1769. He noted that the local Indians (the “Gabrielinos”) used various fruits, grass seeds and other wild seeds, etc.
Most of the year, the evergreen cherry bushes or trees will resemble holly, and people will often guess that they are looking at holly bush. I tell my students to take a leaf and crush it and wait a few seconds to 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.
If we are hiking around the cherries in late summer, there will invariably be fruit on the bush. Some will be ripe enough for us to taste. Most people can look at this 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.) I typically will sample a wild cherry and 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 underflavor 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.
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.
And though the 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 the 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 essentially the same as for 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 (whereas, acorns might require a much longer leaching time). 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.
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 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.
There is a great photo essay on making cherry seed atole (and other cherry seed foods) in “Ethnobotany Project: Contemporary Uses of Native Plants” by Ramirez and Small, and published by Blurb.com.
Dr. James Adams, co-author of “Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West,” 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.
Due to the presence of anthocyanins in cherries, eating about 20 cherries provides the same anti-inflammatory effects as two aspirin, according to Alternatives.
Long, straight branches of the various wild cherries are often used for making archery bows, backrests, baby cradles, and various other crafts.
The cherry is an attractive plant, somewhat conspicuous in the hillsides because of its somewhat shiny leaves. 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.
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.
I recall taking a late August hike in the Angeles National Forest up 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 have a laxative effect. I ate about three dozen fruits over the course of about three hours, and suffered no laxative results.
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.
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.