Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Prunus virginiana

By Hugh Murphy

The chokecherry is a wild, fruit bearing tree native to much of North America. They are particularly common in the mountainous and highland regions at elevations of 4,500 to 8,000 feet (Niethammer, 58).  Historically, its roots, bark and berries have provided both food and medicine to many American Indian tribes and European settlers.  Chokecherry fruit was so important to the Cheyenne and Blackfoot that they referred to it simply as “berry” (  Other common names include wild cherry and stone fruit (Niethammer, 58).      


Chokecherries are small, shrubby trees that can reach adult heights of 25 feet.  Branches are covered in white flowers in the spring which give way to dark red or black berries in July and August (Niethammer, 58).  Berries are small and grow in clusters.  Each berry contains a hard pit or stone.  The dark grey or brown bark is thin and papery and the leaves are small and green. 


Chokecherries were an important food staple for many indigenous peoples of North America.  Berries were eaten raw or dried and mixed with pemmican.  The Jicarilla Apaches ground dried chokecherries and pressed them into cakes for use during the winter months (Niethammer, 58).  Fresh fruit was mashed and made into jelly and syrup or fermented into cherry wine.  Even the roots and bark were consumed in the form of tea (Scully, 26).

The bark and berries of the chokecherry tree were also used to treat a number of medical ailments.  Chokecherry tea was used to treat everything from anxiety to colds, diarrhea and tuberculosis.  Berries were eaten to relieve stomach pain and aid digestion.  A common remedy for head colds involved grinding and smoking chokecherry bark like tobacco (Scully, 147).



Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Niethammer, Carolyn.  American Indian Food and Lore.  New York:  Macmillan Publishing Co., 1974.

Scully, Virginia. A Treasury of American Indian Herbs – Their Lore and Their Use for Food, Drugs, and Medicine.  New York:  Crown Publishers, Inc. 1970. “ChokeCherry.” Forager’s Harvest. 2003. <>