For most of human history, we supported ourselves by hunting and gathering: we hunted wild animals and foraged for wild plants. Since no food was grown and little was stored, we are left with an impression that life was brutish and there was no respite from the daily struggle. But for those who knew where to look, nature provided in abundance. One of Nature’s gifts used by the Blackfoot for both food and medicine was the chokecherry, Prunus virginiana.
The chokecherry is a small tree or shrub that grows up to six metres tall and is widely distributed throughout North America in ravines and open woodlands. We probably know chokecherries now for the delicious jelly or wine they make, but the Blackfoot has many uses for the entire plant. Like saskatoons, the berries were eaten raw, mixed with other foods in soups and stews or used when making pemmican. The bark could be boiled to create a decoction used in the treatment of dysentery. A strong, black, astringent tea was made from boiled twigs and used to relieve fever. Teas were made from the bark or roots and used to treat coughing, malaria, stomachaches, tuberculosis and intestinal worms. Such teas were also used as sedatives and appetite stimulants. The fruit were used to treat canker sores, ulcers and abscesses. Even in our own time, extracts of the berries and bark were used as a flavoring agent for cough and cold preparations. Wild cherry bark was an officially recognized pharmaceutical from 1800–1975. Chokecherry wood is very hard and has a unique property: it does not absorb water once it is dry. It therefore makes excellent firewood in wet weather.
The Galt Museum Store has an impressive selection on books about Native Prairie plants and shrubs for any gardener to get inspired in winter.