These wild, canyonland chokecherries are always a surprise to me. Their shrubby forms grow in the most improbable places – some are anchored in bare inches of soil layered over solid rock, and some, many of the best it seems, have sprouted directly from fissures in the bare rock.
In the dry years, the bushes produce only a few berries each, and these are quickly consumed by birds and deer and other wildlife. In the good years, however, years like 2011, their prolifity is astonishing.
At first glance, the bushes look anything but promising. They live in a tough neighborhood where the yearly arctic winds constantly try to scour them from the canyon. Few grow to more than five feet in height, and their stubby branches are sparse but substantial. In the spring their foliage is a deep, radiant green, but by chokecherry time the leaves have lost much of their color and are quickly fading to brown.
|Western chokecherries (Prunus virginiana demissa) shine in the late summer sun on the EJE ranch south of Kimball, Neb.|
The chokecherries on the EJE Ranch are likely a western variety of the chokecherry native to North America, possibly Prunus virginiana demissa. Western chokecherries are adapted to a more arid climate than their eastern counterpart, the bushes generally smaller in stature, and tolerate colder winter conditions. Their fruit is distinctively darker, and according to many, more sweet.
The name chokecherry is derived from the tannic, highly astringent taste of the ripe fruit. As I stood there on my rock shelf and contemplated the chore of picking and preserving, I reached out and plucked a fat, ripe berry from the nearest cluster and popped it in my mouth. My taste buds erupted with delight. Astringent – yes – but so very sweet. Probably the sweetest chokecherry I’d ever tasted.
To work, then. The sun was well up in the afternoon sky and the day was pleasantly warm with a slight northwest breeze. The breeze was welcome, because chokecherry picking can be sweaty work. It can be a bit hazardous, too, as wild canyonland chokecherries grow where the footing is often treacherous and where rattlesnakes prefer to live, among the sharply fractured siltstone of an actively eroding prairie canyon. An hour’s worth of picking yielded two gallons of chokecherries, and during that hour I moved less than 10 feet from my starting place. Buckets filled, I called it a day. Besides, I’d have helpers in a couple of days, two young ladies from the big city of Omaha who were excited about visiting the ranch and looking forward to some “country” experiences.
When the weekend arrived my helpers were primed and ready for some chokecherry picking. Grace, my niece, had visited the ranch many times but had never picked chokecherries. Myah, Grace’s friend from Omaha, had never picked “…any berries or cherries or anything.” She hastened to add that while she lives in Omaha, she’s not “city.” She’s visited a farm in Iowa many times.
| Myah smiles in the midst of a chokecherry thicket last weekend on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.|
|Grace (l) and Myah pick chokecherries last weekend on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.|
Tired, sweaty, covered in dust and leaves and cobwebs, the girls finally emerged from the canyon, pails brimming with chokecherries, faces glowing with big grins. Almost immediately Myah caught a small horned lizard and decided to take him home and make him a pet.
Together we harvested enough chokecherries to put up 32 pints of jelly, a not-inconsiderable accomplishment. The jelly is made and stored away now, and it’ll taste especially good on cold winter mornings – a taste of sweet, late-summer sunshine when the arctic winds are howling just outside the door.
But best of all, at least for me, will be the memory of precious time spent with two lovely young ladies as they enjoyed a chore that few youngsters get to experience these days.