All about the Chokecherry
The small burgundy-colored cherry looks more like a small round berry the size of a pea. If eaten right off the bush, the bitter taste leaves no question as to why early settlers gave the chokecherry its name. But the women of the region quickly learned that a little sugar and cooking could turn the indigenous fruit into an delicious delight. Few wild plants boast the chokecherry’s combination of tastiness, hardiness, beauty, worth and, yes, poison, according to MSU/Fergus County Extension Office literature. Fatalities from leaves and pits are mainly limited to livestock, because cooking seems to negate the chokecherry’s dangerous properties. The hardy plant is a member of the rose family and thrives throughout a wide region from Canada to Missouri, and North Carolina to the Rocky Mountains. It is especially common in Central Montana and favors moist soil, often found near creeks. Pioneers likely appreciated the fruit for its ability to withstand Montana’s extreme hot and cold temperatures.
The chokecherry bush looks more like a tree, ranging from five to 15 feet in height, and covered in thick, dark green leaves. In the spring, white blossoms sprout in bunches. Through the summer months, clusters of green balls take the flowers’ place. As the chokecherries ripen they first turn a wine red color, then purple, then to a shiny burgundy-black when ready to pick in late August to early September.
Native Americans made extensive use of the plant, from the fruit for pemmican and medicinal teas made from the bark, to arrows, stakes and smokeless firewood. Captain Meriwether Lewis on the Corps of Discovery cured minor abdominal cramps and fever with chokecherry tea, and mountain man Hugh Glass survived a grizzly mauling by subsisting on chokecherries.
Throughout the years, Central Montanans have continued to value the chokecherry. With the help of the Lewistown Area Chamber of Commerce, hundreds of people have been gathering in Lewistown for years to celebrate the fruit’s representation of the people and region known as Central Montana.
In 1991, Montana Governor Stan Stephens signed a proclamation naming Lewistown the “Chokecherry Capitol of Montana” and each year, the celebration continues to grow.