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Chokecherry Preserves


The chokecherry is not an unlovely fruit, once you get past its throat-rattling name. The chokecherry shrub, or tree, bears long clusters of white flowers and bitter-tasting dark-red or blackish fruit. Nonetheless, chokecherries became North Dakota’s official state fruit, in 2007.

The magic of chokecherries comes from making jam, jelly, and wine, but Native Americans also held the fruit in high esteem, eating chokecherries with relish fresh off the plant or drying them for winter. A favorite use of chokecherries for tribes was in pemmican, with the dried chokecherries mixed with dehydrated buffalo-meat.

The Dakota traveled long distances to streams where they found the cherries in abundance. While the cherries lasted, they would camp nearby, preparing the fruit by pounding it to a pulp, pits and all, for the pits were too small to be removed by any easy method. The pulp was then shaped into small cakes and dried in the sun.

So highly-esteemed were chokecherries that the tribe named a month in their calendar after the fruit, Ca pa-sapa-wi – “black cherry moon.” In fact, the time of the Sun Dance was determined by cherries, beginning on the first day of the full moon when chokecherries became ripe.

It was on this date, back in 1922, when Dr. Melvin Gilmore, curator of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, actively promoted greater attention to chokecherries and other natural foods as a way to promote the state to tourists. Dr. Gilmore had long studied the virtues of the native berries and fruits. He listed chokecherries, along with wild plums, raspberries, grapes, buffalo-berries, June-Berries, pin cherries, Pembina berries, sand cherries and wild black currants, as natural resources to boast about.

Dr. Gilmore recommended that jams, jellies, and marmalades be made from Dakota’s berries and then packaged in small jars for distribution in railway dining cars as the trains traversed the state, and for sale in hotels and restaurants along the highways as tourists drove across the state.

It was the glimmering of an idea that only reached full fruition in modern times. Today the “Pride of Dakota” website promotes sales of chokecherry jellies and jams made by Berry Dakota of Jamestown and Amberland Foods in Harvey.

Long after he first articulated his ideas in 1922, Dr. Gilmore’s hopes for chokecherry jelly are truly bearing fruit.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Would Promote State Products To Own People,” “North Dakota to Have Native Fruit Display,” “Native Fruits To Sire Foods Of Posterity,” “Pleads Preservation Of Natural Beauties,” “Chokecherry Lobbying Bears Fruit,” March 29, 2007, Melvin R. Gilmore, “Melvin Randolph Gilmore, (1868-1940), Background Notes,” Nebraska State Historical Society, Nebraskahistory.org, accessed on January 2, 2015.Pride of Dakota website, accessed on January 2, 2015.