The wild cherry, or chokeberry, is a gorgeous little tree. It is native to North America, and it grows mostly in the cooler climates and southward to North Carolina. My great Aunt Bett used it to make a cough syrup.
The blossoms of the cherry and plum trees have for centuries inspired the Japanese art of flower arranging. Its wood is treasured for furniture making, and it has been a source of food and drink since time immemorial. Few of us grew up without tasting wild cherry cough drops or having a spoonful of wild cherry cough syrup, and those two valued medicines came from the wild cherry bush. I refer to it as a bush, but actually it is a small tree that grows up to about 20 feet in the right conditions.
The bark of Prunus virginiana is smooth and usually a reddish brown. The early colonists probably first learned of the plant's medicinal benefits from the Indians, who made a tea from the bark to cure diarrhea and lung ailments. It was the colonists who included the bark in cough medicines and up until the mid 1970s it was was on the list of standard pharmacopeias. Aunt Bett used it for both. She would boil the bark for hours it seemed, and her house would smell of a sweetish scent, a little overpowering like vanilla can sometimes be. As it boiled, she would often add more water making it a much stronger liquid as well as a much stronger scent. It seemed I knew when she was making wild cherry syrup because the scent of it seemed to waft its way up the holler to my house. Sometimes if you just followed your nose, it would take you to Aunt Bett's house.
One reason the wild cherry tree is also called chokeberry is because the raw fruit is sour. It too was used by the early colonists to bring on sweating and to bring down a fever. I tasted one of those berries, but only once. Once was quite enough. I could not get that taste out of my mouth, nor the pucker off my lips. Sometimes Aunt Bett added the bark to other tonics, such as the one she used on kids for expelling worms. Believe me, I never touched that one, but she also used it sometimes as an added ingredient in external salves or lotions for infected areas. I never used it for that either. I was always afraid I would go around smelling like her house smelled when she was boiling the bark.
It is a lovely shrub or small tree, and is a beautiful addition to any garden. Its lustrous, dark green, sawtooth edged leaves are oval and are pointed at the tip. Snowy white flowers bloom from April to July and produce one seeded purplish red fruits. The ripe fruit is popular in jellies and jams, and it is sometimes used to make wines. My dad made wine from many things: dandelion, strawberry, raspberry and even the chokeberry. I was never allowed to taste it, but he surely did make our house smell nearly as bad as did Aunt Bett's. The trouble was, Dad's concoction smelled for months, while Aunt Bett's smelled for only a day or two.
Another interesting thing about the little tree is that its foliage begins to turn from the bottom up, a dark green to purple as the season progresses, and by the end of summer it is very nearly a blackish purple. Sometimes when Aunt Bett wanted to mark the plant so that we could find it again in the spring, we would tie a ribbon around it in the fall when it was easy to spot with its dark purple leaves. I wonder how many ribbons still adorn all those spots in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Ravages of time might destroy the ribbons but I still hold tight to the memories, and hope time never destroys them.
The saddest part is that pharmacologists state that the medicinal use of the plant is only slightly effective. The leaves and the fruit pits contain poisonous hydrocyanic acid, which causes difficult breathing and convulsions. Aunt Bett only used the bark and the berries, making sure to slice the berry carefully to remove the seed. I guess in those days being slightly effective was better than nothing at all, because I remember that wild cherry drops sure stopped a fit of coughing.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Kennedyh, poppysue, mdugre and Todd_Boland.