Enjoy the below poem, “What Really Matters” and natural history article on Black Cherries, a seasonal delight.
What really matters…
by Arianna Alexsandra Collins
Believe in the little things
like throwing leaves into the sky
a morning gesture to greet the Autumn wind.
Believe in little miracles
like the downward dance of the green darner dragonfly
flying south to escape the Autumn chill.
Cherish the little moments
the hawks are leaving us now
wave good-bye and come inside
put another log on the fire
it’ll be cold soon.
Love this gift of life
breathe in the sun
let it heat your soul
sustain you through the dark months ahead.
I am walking up the road, feeling the slight shift in the breeze yet knowing there are sure to be more hot days ahead. Still, autumn is already in the morning dew. You can hear it at night in the Katydid’s call. It’s in the Black Cherry fruit falling to the ground to be consumed by red fox, black bear, raccoon, opossum, and numerous species of birds to fatten up for the long winter ahead. (I know. I am sorry. I mentioned the “w” word and autumn is still weeks away.)
I find Black Cherry pits in the scat (poop) of a red fox as I walk. “Must be almost September,” I think to myself. I always seem to miss that just-before-the-cherries-fall period because suddenly cherries are littering the ground and me with no tarp to catch them. Picking cherries off the road or even in the duff is not how I would prefer to consume this tasty, yet now dirt-covered treat. Of course the Red Fox didn’t mind. She saw a free meal and ate it up – yum! I look up. I can’t even see the tiny fruit amidst the leaves. And unlike our stubby Choke and Pin Cherries whose fruit I cannot abide by (but some find edible after processing), the Black Cherry is a tall tree. You cannot simply shake it and have the fruit fall around you. You can do that with an Apple branch. You can’t even hope to reach a Cherry branch to give it a good shake. Nope. You really just have to remember to sit down below the tree in later August and wait. And you may be waiting until into September. Possibly into late September. Just depends on what the tree wants, I suppose. It seems to be different from year to year.
So you wait for the fruit to start dropping. Put your tarp out and catch the fruit. And no you can’t leave the tarp and think you will have a bounty when you return. The fox and mice and grouse will eat them up and leave you with just the pits.
So what is all the hub-bub about? Why all the pining for a tiny black fruit with so little meat on it? Well, it’s sweet. It tastes good on the tongue. You may have sampled it as a slice of cherry pie or Black Forest cake or as jam on toast. Perhaps you drank the fruit’s juice in that cherry soda or liqueur. Well, you don’t have to go buy that soda or slice of pie to get that taste you enjoy. You can eat the cherries right there in the forest. You just have to wait for them to fall.
How do you know you have found a Black Cherry Tree, Prunus serotina? As the dark gray to black bark matures it develops plating. (Some describe this plating as reminiscent of burnt potato chips.) If you can actually reach the leaves, you will notice alternate, simple long, blunt-toothed leaves with a fuzzy white to orange mid-rib on the underside. Scratch and sniff the reddish-brown twigs and you should come away with what many describe as a “burnt almond” smell; as if someone had poured almond extract into a pan and forgot to keep the heat low. If you bite down on the pit you will taste that sweet almond extract flavor that smacks of a burnt bitterness. Do not eat the pit, also called a seed or stone, raw or unprocessed. Well, at least don’t consume a huge quantity of them. The pits contain the carbohydrate prunasin which breaks down into hydrocyanic acid in the body which deactivates respiratory enzymes when taken in a large dose. What is a large enough dose to be toxic? I am not sure as it would depend on at least a few factors. But suffice to say, swallowing a few cherry stones won’t leave you gasping for air in a corner. So don’t worry. You’ve probably swallowed worse things in your life. A penny or paperclip perhaps. Or a whole bag of candy corn. Or more than ten marshmallows in a sitting.
Now you can process the sweet black fruit with the seeds in it, and dry out or cook out the toxin, because prunasin is a heat-sensitive compound. That is totally doable. It just takes some time and steps. I recommend looking up “Arthur Haines,” my trusted go-to wild edibles resource. This expert goes into thorough detail on how to process cherries with their seeds.
There is no need to be afraid of trying new foods or even familiar foods in new ways. You probably eat foods at times that are not healthy choices. So why not choose a native, in-season fruit that is both tasty and healthy. Cherry fruit contains antioxidants and the flavonoid, Queritrin, which has been found by researchers to be a potent anticancer agent. So suck the fruit off the seeds and enjoy!
See you along the back country roads or in the woods. Together we can sample the trail-side nibbles and gather the ripening fruits. Oh, and did I mention it’s time for mushroom hunting? Several are in season. Black Trumpets and Golden Chanterelles and Chicken-of-the-woods, oh my!
This article appeared in the September 2015 edition of the Ashfield News and is a part of a bi-monthly feature, “Into the Outside” by Arianna Alexsandra Collins.