Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Chokecherry time

The chokecherries were ready. As I stood there on a shelf of rock above the bottom of the canyon and looked around, I saw hundreds – maybe thousands – of twisted, almost ratty-looking branches hanging heavy under the weight of fruit.

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.
In a year like this one, the wonder of the tangled, unattractive mass of bushes is the sheer volume of fruit clustered on those spare, twisted branches. Each cluster contains a dozen or so fat little berries, each about the size of a pea, and so darkly purple as to be black. At first you spy one or two clusters, but then, in that lovely bit of prairie magic, you look just a bit more closely, and dozens, hundreds, thousands of fruit clusters snap sharply into view.

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.
Being a bit more experienced, and with a bit less talking to do, I quickly filled my pail with dark, fat chokecherries. I climbed to the top of the canyon wall and found a good rock to perch on, then just watched the girls as they picked and gabbed away. They were clearly having fun and occasionally remembered to pick some fruit. As they moved back and forth among the uneven bushes I could hear their non-stop conversation, though I couldn’t make out any of the words. What do 11 year-old girls talk about, I wondered? None of my business, of course.

Grace (l) and Myah pick chokecherries last weekend on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
As I sat there in the warm sunshine and watched the girls and enjoyed the hint of breeze, my mind turned back to chokecherry picking when I was 11. I’d like to say it’s a great memory for me, but it’s not. I thought it was a crashing bore. Why not go to the store for jelly? But the memory is precious in another way – I was picking with my grandfather Wilbur, and neither of us knew how quickly the clock was ticking for him.

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.

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