Bittersweet: On memory, my mother, and chokecherries
By Lauren Korn
Broadcast 8.2 & 8.5.2023
My mother pulls her navy blue Subaru Legacy to the side of a long, dirt road, dust spilling around us then quickly settling beneath the car’s tires. We step out onto the road and make our way to its shoulder, to a large, towering shrub—my mother in a visor that matches the hue of her hatchback, my sister and I sporting oversized t-shirts that reach our knees. It’s 1996. We’ve got jelly-making on our minds.
This shrub (some call it a tree, others a bush) is part of my memory’s landscape. It sits at the outer edge of a curve in the dirt road that bridges the paved county road and my mother’s gravel driveway, ten miles south of Helena, just above Prickly Pear Creek, in the tree-spotted foothills of the Elkhorn Mountains. Cars speed by the shrub every day—many drivers oblivious to its summertime cache of bitter berries, though distracted, perhaps, by its abundant white flowers come spring, their evanescent scent of honey.
The chokecherry, Prunus virginiana, also called the “bitter-berry” but not to be confused with the “chokeberry,” is part of the rose family and is found in all but eight of the United States. Maps of its native range in Montana leave no inch untouched; they’re found everywhere here, save those shady spaces prone to flooding or those with soils wet with clay. As its name supposes, the chokecherry carries with it a bitter, astringent taste that leaves the human mouth that dares pluck it from its red-brown branch dry and cottony.
Today, we carry gallon-sized Ziploc bags, rolling the nearly-black berries from their stems to our palms, from our palms to each bag’s bottom. My sister and I struggle to keep up with our mother, skilled picker and the only one of us able to reach the berries growing up high. We won’t linger long—we are short-lived competition for the magpies and bluebirds that nest nearby, and for the deer that will come to subsist on the fruit alongside autumn’s arrival.
“Ours” is a rare, lone shrub. Chokecherries multiply by their root systems, a network of rhizomes, and more often than not appear in dense thickets, their aerial roots growing up to 39 feet in length, though keeping close to the surface and extending no deeper than three feet into the soil.
Because of the fruit’s cheek-sucking sour, none of the cherries we pick from the road are lost to our mid-day, late-season hunger. But the cherry’s choke is not the only reason to defer our roadside sampling. The chokecherry’s finely-toothed leaves, stems, and seeds are toxic: they contain cyanogenic glycosides, which human and many non-human bodies convert into hydrocyanic, or “prussic,” acid upon digestion; eating the fruit out-of-hand has proven a dangerous game for children and livestock alike.
Jelly is the name of our game, however, so we needn’t worry. Once the cherries are plucked, washed, stemmed, and ground—seeds and all—boiling the fruit will both transform the cherry’s puckering bitter into a bread-spreading sweet and neutralize its toxicity. Coincidentally, the shrub itself responds well to intense heat: While it can be top-killed by fire, it rapidly re-sprouts from its surviving roots, and seed germination improves after what experts call “heat treatment.”
When our mother passes away, over two decades post-picking, my sister and I will undertake the unenviable task of clearing out her rust-colored, ranch-style house. In her basement: a closet, at one time in our childhoods used for storing VHS tapes, but at the end of our mother’s life used for storing jarred jellies, jams, and other homemade preserves. I will take a few jars that seem most visually appealing—with one exception: a small, simple jar of chokecherry jelly, a white label pressed to its lid, “chokecherry” written in my grandmother’s cursive. It will sit in my kitchen cabinet, unopened, 123 miles away from the bush that bore its fruit. And each summer, when the sky swells with the smoke of western wildfires, and my house on this side of the Divide struggles to cool, my mouth will remember chokecherries (first bitter, then sweet) and dust.
Recipe for chokecherry jelly:
Step 1. Pick firm and ripe, but not overly-ripe, fruit. A few green chokecherries in a quantity of ripe ones add to the pectin content and are an asset [to] getting firm jelly.
Step 2. Wash and stem.
Step 3. Grind—seeds and all.
Step 4. Add boiling water at a radio of 1 1/2 parts water to one part berries. Let stand overnight and strain the next day.
Step 5. Can the juice for later jelly-making. Pour the juice into sterilized jars, seal, and place in a canner. Cover with warm water and bring to a boil. Boil 5 minutes. Remove jars of juice from water bath and set aside until you need.
For jelly: Pour 4 cups of juice into at least a 4 quart container. Add one package of commercial pectin (MCP) and boil 2 minutes. WATCH THE TIME CAREFULLY. After 2 minutes, add 5 cups sugar and boil 9 minutes. [The number nine has been crossed out, a note in my grandmother’s handwriting offering 7 1/2 to 8 minutes.] Remove from heat, skim, pour into jelly glasses, and seal.
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