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September 9, 2004

Make Sure Those Chokecherries Really Are Chokecherries!

As the season moves toward fall, chokecherries and other wild fruits are starting to ripen. Chokecherries make a great jam or syrup and they’re even good right off the stem. However, harvesting fruit from the wrong plant can lead to big problems.

Common buckthorn (a.k.a. European buckthorn) has a similar fruit to chokecherry, according to Joe Zeleznik, North Dakota State University Extension Service forester. “Eating buckthorn fruit can make you very sick; it happens every year in North Dakota. Because birds eat buckthorn fruit and have no problems with it, some people think its fine for humans. While that reasoning works with other plants, it doesn’t hold up with buckthorn.”

If you don’t know what to look for, it’s easy to misidentify some plants and their fruit. Both chokecherry and buckthorn have dark, berry-like fruits and both have dark gray-brown bark with horizontal lenticels.

“The key characteristic in separating the two species is the way the fruits are clustered,” Zeleznik says. “Chokecherry fruit hang together as a group on a small green stalk, while buckthorn fruits are borne individually directly on the woody twigs.”

Another big difference is the pattern of leaf and bud arrangement. Buckthorn leaves and buds are normally found in pairs, opposite each other or slightly offset. Chokecherry leaves and buds are arranged alternately, one leaf won’t have another one directly opposite it. On rare occasion, buckthorn leaves will be arranged alternately, so look over the whole plant before deciding which species it is “If you’re out hiking late in the fall and come across some fruits, chances are they’re buckthorn because chokecherry trees normally drop their fruits in late summer or early fall,” Zeleznik says.

Eating buckthorn fruit often causes gastrointestinal upset including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms may last up to two days. Dehydration may also become a problem. If you think you’ve eaten some buckthorn fruits, call the local poison control center.

Chokecherry fruit makes a fine jam, syrup or a nice snack for hungry hikers and hunters. “Don’t ruin a potentially great experience by eating the wrong thing,” Zeleznik says. “If you do eat some buckthorn fruits, it will be an experience you won’t forget. Stick with the chokecherries.”

For more information on making jams and jellies, contact your local office of the NDSU Extension Service or visit the NDSU Extension Service Nutrition, Food Safety and Health Web site at http://www.ag.ndsu.nodak.edu/food.htm. Click on food preservation and storage. For more information on buckthorn and chokecherry identification, contact Zeleznik at (701) 231-8143.

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Source: Joe Zeleznik, (701) 231-8143, joseph.zeleznik@ndsu.nodak.edu
Editor: Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136, richard.mattern@ndsu.nodak.edu

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Photo of the leaves of the Buckthorn and Chokecherry trees
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Photo of the fruits of Buckthorn and Chokecherry trees
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Buckthorn (L) and chokecherry (R) twigs and fruits. Note that buckthorn leaves and buds are located directly opposite of one another on the twig, while chokecherry is alternately arranged on the twig. Chokecherry fruits hang together in a cluster called a raceme, while buckthorn fruits are individually attached to the twigs.


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