The Choke Cherry Tree


My friend Red Elk was discussing food sources most people overlook..and thus reminded me of the choke cherry tree.

My active duty tour in the U.S. Army was at a base (called a kaserne) in Germany where we stood ready to serve as cannon fodder should the Red Army decide to invade via the Fulda Gap. Right beside the steps to the front door of the 3-story-plus-basement building that served as Admin offices for the Colonel and his crew (1st floor), Section room for our Commo crew (basement), and barracks for us enlisted on-post types (2nd & 3rd floors)…there grew a bush. A big, beautiful tree.

A choke cherry tree.

Note for those unfamiliar with the plant: A big choke cherry tree is not like, say, a big oak tree or a Ponderosa pine tree or (heh!) a giant redwood. As trees go, choke cherries are small and slender; it would be most accurate to describe the specimen under discussion as “a big, healthy specimen of that species of tree”. Not a big bush; an easygoing tree.

Nonetheless, It was for me a powerful reminder of home. On the ranch in Montana where I grew up, a steep gully ran north-to-south just a few yards to the east of the Big Corral. For most of the year, it was dry as a bone–though during spring runoff, there might be as much as two feet of rushing water coursing down to the galvanized steel culvert that ran under the highway and dumped out over a steep drop to the Clark Fork River.

We called that place Choke Cherry Gully.

There were choke cherry trees growing in a few other spots nearby, but none so productive and plentiful as those flourishing in Choke Cherry Gully. Only once or twice were they seriously threatened–by what we called “tent caterpillars”. Most years, however, these trees were good for gallons and gallons of ripe, dark-red to almost-black, mouth-puckering, absolutely awesome raw eating…let alone choke cherry jam and/or choke cherry syrup, either of which was “to die for”. Food? This was ambrosia and the nectar of the Gods all rolled into one!

Ripe chokecherries (roughly life-size).

Ripe chokecherries (roughly life-size).

   Chokecherry jam. I want some!

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Chokecherry jam. I want some!

A Gift from the Universe

Strangely, Twilight Zone weirdly it seemed to me, none of my fellow soldiers agreed with me about the German tree. Despite many members of our commo platoon coming from Montana and a fair number having made their living outdoors in such occupations as Forest Ranger, guide & outfitter, etc….they were more ignorant of the mighty choke cherry than I would have believed possible.

Their responses, when I assured them it was indeed a choke cherry tree and would provide some of the best eatin’ fruit in the world in a couple of months, fell into 3 categories:

    1. Those berries are poison.

    2. You’re mistaken, that’s not a choke cherry tree.

    3. What’s a choke cherry tree?

It slowly dawned on me: I was being granted a precious gift. With no one else interested–no one else, in fact, would even consider trying so much as a single cherry–I would be able to hog all the fruit I could eat when they ripened. Every tart, puckery, awesome mouthful would connect me strongly to my strongly missed home in the Montana foothills. I had no competition.

And so it was.

Living in the barracks with surprise inspections possible at any moment, there was no safe way to store large amounts of the choke cherries; they pretty much had to be eaten by the handful on the spot after we were off duty for the day and the rest of the troops had retreated to their rooms for the evening.

At those times, though, no one was even around to notice.

For two deep-summer seasons in 1964 and 1965, I was in choke cherry heaven. Nobody even noticed the many pits drying in the grass near the tree after I’d spit them out. Musta been the birds, doncha know.

Moral(s) of the story: One man’s poison is another man’s choke cherry tree…and choke cherry jam is to die for.