Clusters of red to dark purple chokecherries are ripe and ripening across Minnesota. This is a bitter fruit about the size of a large green pea. You've neglected your outdoor education if you have never picked the cherries fresh and eaten them raw.
The choke cherry is a large shrub or small tree, seldom reaching more than 20 feet in height, growing on the edges of forests and fields, in thickets, on stream banks and along fence rows. It's wild in every Minnesota county, and is reported to be the most widespread tree species in North America, growing from as far north as Alaska and Canada, throughout the states, even into Mexico.
The fruit makes for a tart but refreshing jelly, ideal when spread across a piece of fresh cornbread or a slice of toast. For an invigorating hot-weather drink with an unusual taste, try this simple recipe: mash the fresh choke cherry fruit and drain the juice into a pitcher, adding water and sugar to taste.
Bears and chipmunks, grouse and ring-necked pheasants, cedar waxwings and brown thrashers are among dozens of wildlife species that relish this fruit.
Jim Gilbert's Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio Sundays at 7:15 a.m. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.