I planted chokecherry bushes in my yard. I don’t know what I was thinking. Certainly I had not intended to create a chokecherry plantation. They were given to me, those desiccated branches. I stuck the dozen bare-naked sticks into the gumbo. I wasn’t sure any would survive. I hoped one chokecherry might live which I would keep pruned into a bush. Each August I would be able to go out into my back yard, fight off the birds with flailing arms and pick enough of the puny little fruits to make a single batch of jelly, nostalgia jelly, essence-of-memory chokecherry jelly.
When I was a child my grandmother always snorted at the idea of harvesting chokecherries. The miserable little fruits consist of nothing but skin, a drop of juice and a large pit. Back on our farm in Indiana, before we moved to Montana, we had pears, apricots, peaches, persimmons, plums, cherries and several old-fashioned apples. Real fruit. Nevertheless, desperate for sweets, every August Grandma and I crossed the river, tromped down into the barrow pit and emerged into a thicket of scrubby chokecherry trees. We worked hours to fill our pails. Sweat poured down our backs. Mosquitoes feasted unmolested on our flesh as we held the bucket with one hand and stripped the fruit with the other.
In our steam-filled kitchen we simmered the fruit, strained the juice, cooked it to the jell stage, washed, scalded and filled jars and carefully ladled melted paraffin over the hot jell. In September we tackled the native crab apples in much the same fashion. Come winter we treasured those jars of shimmering jelly.
Today at the market, one may buy bushels of peaches or pears or apples. It’s all trucked in from Yakima or California or South America. One knows neither where the fruit originated nor when it was picked. Eating store-bought fruit is like playing the lottery. At times the pulp is woody and tasteless. When you pick a winner, it is sweet and juicy. Yet it is undeniably easy to buy fresh fruit in the produce department and jelly in brightly labeled jars on aisle three.
Ah, my chokecherries! Six lovely, low spreading bushes survived both late frosts and hailstorms. Every branch is loaded and bent to the ground. Some branches are so heavy they broke off at the trunk. All summer I guarded the bushes like a hawk. So did my cats. They lounged in the shade of the little trees, twitching their tails, ready to pounce on any unwary bird dumb enough to come near. The cherries prospered, grew plumper, fleshier and juicier than any chokecherry in my previous experience.
Finally picking day arrived. With my blue colander in hand, I stripped the heavy fruit from one branch. I grabbed a stool, sat down and reached into the drooping branches. In minutes I had heaped my bowl. I emptied it into a bucket and continued picking. When I had picked the ripest cherries from two of my bushes, I went inside to the kitchen. I processed a batch of jelly for myself, a batch for my children and a couple batches to give to visitors.
Now I was in a quandary. Sure, I could let the birds take the rest of the cherries. But surely there must be other women in town like me, hungry for chokecherry jelly but unwilling to head out into the country and battle through the brush. I made some phone calls. Marsha came over. I handed her a stool. She chose her bush, sat down and in minutes filled her bucket. I called Evelyn. She said she would love some but didn’t think she could pick them. So I picked her a bucketful and delivered it in exchange for a cup of tea, a cookie and conversation. Mary said, “Sondra, you know I don’t can!” Sandy said her fruit shelves were overloaded. Jane said, “The thought of canning anything makes my stomach hurt.” Lois said that she didn’t think she’d have time, but thanked me for calling. I’ll keep asking. Somebody will want to share my bird cherries.
Everything has been ripening late this year. One of my bushes is still covered with little green fruit. Give it another week or so of sunshine. Maybe I will generously leave the last cherries for the birds. Maybe.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after recently returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)