In early July, our budding love ripened prematurely as we walked hand in hand through an alley of chokecherry bushes on your father’s ranch. You admitted your trouble with timing. Too early, and the fruit is too bitter to eat. Too late and what the deer haven’t devoured hangs withered. Then you admitted that the chokecherries were reminders of the failures you’d been amassing since childhood.
It would take months for me to understand, but another of your monsters crept into our fairy tale as I wrapped my arms around you and hoped you felt the love you’d always lacked. Your eyes lit up as I recounted how the fruit I remembered from childhood grew in clusters as big as my hand, when I explained how the bushes edged our golden fields, that more than once I’d run away and headed to this safe and magical place but always arrived when the fruit was too tart to eat, and I returned home my tummy pinched with hunger.
Your eyes danced as you buried your fingers into my silvering curls and professed your love. Promised there’d be nothing but sweetness between us. I knew it was too soon, but I plucked a yellow chokecherry tempting me from the branch above your head and bit into the unripe fruit.
Also called bitter berry and bird cherry, chokecherry is a tree-like shrub native to North America. Like cherries and plums, chokecherries belong to the stone fruit family. As the fruit matures, it progresses from light green to yellow, bright red to deep red and are too bitter to eat until they turn purplish-black. Wildlife tends to strip the plants soon after the cherries ripen.
Picking chokecherries at the right time is tricky.
In one hand, I hold the strainer’s broken handle and, in the other, the mesh basket that’s come unattached. Mom pushes my elbow over the sink to stop the purple-black juice from dripping on the floor. Our clothes, the kitchen floor and countertops are splattered in chokecherry juice, and half of our bounty waits in the fridge.
I shrug and say, “Well, at least it happened at the end of this batch.”
Mom and I share a glass-is-half-full approach to catastrophe.
In late August, I woke beneath a canopy of green, Birds of Western Canada facedown next to me on my patchwork quilt. I’d fallen asleep reading while you swathed barley, but now your ATV droned in the distance.
The hum grew until you were standing next to me. Lines branched through the dust caking your red-rimmed eyes. You apologized for taking so long and swiped sweat from your forehead. Palmed a handful of ruby red chokecherries and placed one between my lips.
“Taste this,” you said, and I opened my mouth to prove my trust. I’d sampled one earlier, knew the fuzz of bitterness would cling to my tongue if I chewed, so I swallowed the fruit, stone and all.
Then you tasted the fruit, apologized for the bitterness. The light in your eyes seemed to dim before you looked away, before you took my hand in yours and we headed home.
Chokecherry season runs mid-August to early September. Test for taste before filling your buckets. When fully ripe, chokecherries are somewhat sweet yet astringent. To increase the sweetness and improve flavour, store your harvest in the fridge for a few days.
Chokecherries spoil quickly, so have a plan before you pick. I suggest making chokecherry jelly. Remember, a largish stone takes up about half of the small fruit’s volume, so pick twice as much as you think you’ll need. To prepare, boil chokecherries in a bit of water until the fruit pulp falls away from the stones. Filter the flesh through a strainer and discard the stones. Add sugar, pectin and lemon, then process.
Allow plenty of time for cleanup.
Chokecherry juice drips from my elbow into the sink as I force the last bits of flesh through the mesh.
As I toss the broken strainer into the trash can with the stones, Mom asks, “Wal-Mart?”
The microwave clock reads 10:45. I frown and say, “I doubt it’s open, but I sure don’t want to clean this mess two days in a row.”
I forage through my cupboards until I find my berry juicer. It crushes the chokecherries, stones and all. The last batch took 3 hours to process, but this one only takes thirty minutes. The juiced chokecherries are the consistency of applesauce.
I dip two spoons into the pot and hand one to Mom. She groans and takes a second spoonful. A hint of almond lingers on my tongue as I fill the sealers.
In early September, I noted how the light quickly began to fade as we drove west to the ranch. The chokecherries had finally ripened.
Later, you snickered at me because I gathered chokecherries in a yogurt container then dumped them into the ice cream pail. I shrugged and murmured, “Better safe than sorry.” Blamed the change on exhaustion—I was back to teaching full-time and your caseload had increased at work—and plucked cluster after cluster of purple-black fruit, dumped my smaller container into the large as Mom had taught me when I was young.
Half an hour in, you dropped your half-filled bucket. In the moonlight, the purple-black fruit shone like an open wound. You stomped the bruised fruit, and I cried, “Stop! We can salvage it!”
But you turned away from the massacred fruit and whispered, “Not everything is worth saving.” Packed up our half-filled pails.
For the first time, you walked away without taking my hand and a stone dropped into my heart. Over the next several months, these toxic stones would pile up and poison us both.
Although the fruit is edible, chokecherry stones and leaves contain a cyanide compound. Eaten in large quantities, the leaves, stems and bark are toxic to animals. Horses are commonly found dead after eating chokecherries and other cherry species.
After Mom leaves, a friend invites me for supper. While he cooks, I recount the highlights of Mom’s visit—the broken strainer, the juicer. When I get to the part about the subtle hint of almond, he interrupts. “Didn’t you learn anything from Agatha Christie? Almonds on the breath is a telltale sign of poisoning.” He notes my blank expression and adds, “There’s cyanide in cherry stones.”
I excuse myself to call Mom from the balcony, wonder when these toxic stones will stop poisoning me.