Picking chokecherries

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The chokecherry trees in our yard, next to Pipi’s Pasture, are loaded with berries this year. Even the branches on the smallest trees are hanging full of chokecherries.

As I look at the chokecherries, I’m reminded of late summer to early fall days when I was a kid growing up on the ranch. Chokecherry trees grew wild all around the ranch, but it seemed like the biggest and best berries were produced by trees that grew in patches around the hay meadows and close to the creek.

Each spring when the white chokecherry blossoms appeared on the trees, we hoped that a late spring frost wouldn’t “get the chokecherries.” But a lot of the time it did, so in the years that the chokecherries were bountiful, we picked buckets of them, and besides making jelly, Mom canned the chokecherry juice. That way she could make chokecherry jelly in years when there were no berries to pick.

During the summer, Dad kept track of the chokecherries as he worked in the hay meadows. He would report to us that the berries were getting ripe and finally, “You’d better get the chokecherries because the birds are eating them.”

Now that I have grown up and have made chokecherry jelly myself, I know that if the berries are picked before they’re fully ripe and are red instead of black, the jelly may not set up. Apparently, it has something to do with the pH of the berry juice. So it’s a challenge to know just when to pick the chokecherries. Wait too long, and the birds will have gobbled up the berries; pick the berries early, and the jelly may be runny.

Anyway, when we decided that the time was right, us kids and Mom gathered up some pails and possibly a stool to stand on, loaded everything in the pickup truck and headed for the chokecherry patch.

Although the hay had been cut and stacked by then, tall grass grew around the chokecherry trees, and sometimes there were rocks around them, too. So sometimes it wasn’t easy to find a place to stand, but we put the bucket handles around our arms and started picking chokecherries on the lowest branches first.

It was all too easy to spill berries, so we put larger buckets on level ground a little way from the picking area, and from time to time, emptied our picking buckets into them. After we had picked the berries on the lower branches, we began pulling down higher branches. Mom frowned on breaking the branches, so we were extra careful. We also reached berries by setting up a step stool under the tree, but this didn’t work very well considering all of the grass and rocks.

The very biggest and best berries were always in the very top of each chokecherry tree, so they got left for the birds. (The birds perched up in neighboring trees, watching us and chirping away.) Leaving some berries for the birds was fine with Mom. She also told us that we should leave some berries for seed.

When we finished picking for the day, we had at least a couple of buckets full of chokecherries. The next day Mom got busy cooking up chokecherry juice.

Mom worked with a few berries at a time, sorting off the leaves and twigs. She put the chokecherries into a pot and covered them with water. The berries were simmered for awhile, and then the contents of the pot were poured through a cheesecloth that was held in place by clothespins over a big bowl. The juice ran through the cheesecloth, leaving pits and chokecherry “skins” in the cloth. The juice in the bowl was a pretty pink color.

The pits and skins were collected during the day and later carried out to the chicken house so that the chickens could pick through them. (Nothing went to waste on the ranch.)

The juice was either canned in large jars, so it could be used for jelly later or made into jelly right away.

I have one final thought about picking chokecherries. It was family time, as most ranch work was. While we picked the berries, we enjoyed one another’s company. We listened to Mom’s stories about picking berries when she was young (among other stories), and we learned a lot about appreciating nature. Picking chokecherries ended up being more than collecting berries!

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