The chokecherry tree, prunus virginiana, spans the North American continent, from British Columbia to Newfoundland, and down into the northern half of the United States. It thrives in a variety of soils and elevations.
For many Native American tribes, the chokecherry fruit has been a staple food for millennia, with the tree’s branches and leaves also serving a variety of medicinal purposes and uses in daily life. The chokecherry itself is an excellent source of fiber, carbohydrates, vitamin K, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus.
According to the USDA, chokecherry seeds are deemed toxic due to concentrations of hydrocyanic acid (also found in the leaves and stems). However, thanks to the way in which chokecherries have been prepared and preserved by many Native American tribes for generations— by grinding them, forming them into patties, and setting them out to dry—the cyanide content dissipates dramatically, making them safe to eat.
Bark and Branches
Many tribes made a tea out of the chokecherry branches to treat colds, coughs, laryngitis, fevers, rheumatism, stomach aches, diarrhea and dysentery. In the journals of Lewis and Clark, it was recorded that while camping on the upper Missouri River, Captain Lewis suffered from abdominal cramps and fever, and treated his ailments with a tea made from chokecherry twigs. He reported that he was well the next day. Chokecherry branches were also fashioned into bows and arrows, tipi stakes and pins. Because of the many uses of the chokecherry tree, it is highly prized and chokecherry branches are also used in a variety of tribal ceremonies.
What the chokecherry is used for:
Indigenous language translations
Dakota: canpa hu
Chokecherry pudding is medicine
A recent study by Shoshone-Paiute student Destany “Sky” Pete linked traditional chokecherry pudding (with the ground seeds included), with inhibiting the growth of uterine sarcoma cancer cells, reinforcing the traditional knowledge that chokecherries are medicine.