Wild cherries are generally safe to eat in moderate quantities. However, it’s important to properly identify the specific species, as some wild cherries contain cyanide and are toxic. When foraging, look for cherries growing on shrubs or small trees, not clustered vines. Avoid cherries that taste bitter, smell like almonds, or have wilted leaves/stems. Introduce new wild foods slowly and look out for any adverse reactions.
What are wild cherries?
Wild cherries refer to the various species of cherries that grow naturally in wilderness areas, forests, fields and roadsides without being planted or cultivated. There are dozens of different wild cherry species worldwide, though some of the most common in North America include:
- Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
- Pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica)
- Black cherry (Prunus serotina)
- Wild sweet cherry (Prunus avium)
Wild cherries usually grow on small, scraggly trees or shrubs reaching 5-30 feet tall. The fruits resemble cultivated cherries but are generally smaller and more sour/astringent. When ripe, wild cherries range from bright red to nearly black in color.
Are all wild cherries edible?
No, not all wild cherries are safe to eat. Several species contain compounds called cyanogenic glycosides that break down into toxic hydrogen cyanide if consumed. Examples of potentially dangerous wild cherry species include:
- Black cherry
- Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata)
When eaten in very small portions, these cherries may cause minor stomach upset. But ingesting cherries, leaves or stems in larger quantities can lead to dizziness, fainting, respiratory failure and even death in severe cases due to cyanide poisoning.
That said, some species of wild cherry such as pin cherry and wild sweet cherry are non-toxic and make good trailside snacks when properly identified. Let’s go over some tips for safe wild cherry foraging and identification:
Tips for identifying safe wild cherries
When gathering wild cherries, follow these guidelines to avoid toxic varieties:
- Grow on trees/shrubs, not vines: Edible cherries grow on small trees and shrubs, not long, clustered vines. Toxic species like nightshade have a vining growth habit.
- No almond smell: Cyanide-containing cherries may have an almond-like scent in leaves and stems. Avoid any cherry bushes with a noticeable almond odor.
- No wilting: Look for cherries on healthy, vibrant bushes. Wilted leaves or branches may indicate cyanide-producing species.
- No bitter taste: Toxic cherries usually taste unpleasantly bitter. Discard any wild cherries that aren’t sweet.
- Unfamiliar species: When in doubt, avoid picking cherry-like fruits from unrecognized trees/shrubs.
Start by tasting just a tiny portion from an unfamiliar cherry bush and wait several hours to check for stomach upset or other reactions before consuming more.
Are wild cherries healthier than cultivated cherries?
Potentially, yes. Wild cherries tend to be higher in some nutrients and antioxidants than commercially grown cherries.
According to a study in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, pin cherries contain higher levels of beneficial polyphenols and anthocyanins compared to cultivated sweet and tart cherries.1 These plant compounds give cherries their bright red color while acting as antioxidants in the body.
Another analysis found that black cherries have very high ORAC values, a measure of antioxidant activity. In fact, black cherries measured over 14,000 micromoles TE per 100 grams – more than triple the ORAC of cultivated sweet cherries!2
So if you come across a bountiful black cherry tree on a hike, it may be worth gathering some to reap the antioxidant benefits. Just be absolutely certain of the identification first since black cherries can also be toxic when misidentified.
Nutrition facts for wild cherries
The exact nutrition profile can vary based on the specific wild cherry species. But here is a general nutrition comparison of wild cherries vs. raw sweet cherries per 1 cup serving (154g):3,4
|Nutrient||Wild cherries||Cultivated cherries|
As you can see, wild cherries tend to be higher in fiber, vitamin A, manganese and potassium compared to cultivated varieties. The significant fiber and nutrient density make them a nutritious wild edible when you can find them.
Potential health benefits of wild cherries
Here are some of the top evidence-based health benefits associated with different wild cherry species:
Many wild cherries are packed with anthocyanins and other antioxidant compounds. Research shows that eating antioxidant-rich foods can help reduce cellular damage and lower inflammation.5,6
Animal and test tube studies reveal that black cherry extract may help control blood sugar levels. The anthocyanin cyanidin-3-glucoside is believed to be the key bioactive component providing these anti-diabetic effects.7,8
The powerful antioxidants in wild cherries may help protect against cancer development and tumor growth. Cell studies demonstrate that wild cherry extracts inhibit the growth of certain colon, lung and breast cancer cell lines.9,10
Some early research indicates that consuming cherry juice daily can boost memory, attention span and other cognitive measures in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.11 Wild cherries may offer similar brain health benefits.
However, most current research is based on juice or extract rather than whole wild cherries. More studies are needed on the specific effects of simply eating wild cherries as a fruit.
Foraging tips and precautions
Here are some important tips to keep in mind when looking to harvest wild cherries:
– Be 100% certain of the identification. When in doubt, remember “when in nature, don’t eat!” Compare to pictures and descriptions from multiple sources.
– Avoid roadsides or areas bordering industrial parks or farms. These plants may be contaminated with car exhaust, chemicals or pesticides.
– Don’t harvest more than you plan to use. Picking fruits promotes plant growth and a healthy ecosystem. But take only as much as realistically needed.
– Wash thoroughly before eating. Rinse cherries with cold running water and gently rub to remove dirt and debris.
– Introduce new wild foods slowly. Try just a few cherries first and wait 12-24 hours to check for any negative reactions before consuming more.
– Watch for choking hazards. Some wild cherries have large pits relative to the fruit flesh. Be mindful of this choking risk when snacking on foraged cherries in the wild.
– Don’t rely on wild foods long-term. Enjoy wild edibles as a supplemental food source rather than a dietary staple.
– Check local laws and regulations. In some areas it may be illegal to forage plant foods from public parks or protected wilderness regions.
How to eat wild cherries
Wild cherries have a tart, fruity flavor when ripe. They make a tasty snack eaten straight off the tree. You can also try:
– Adding wild cherries to oatmeal, yogurt or cottage cheese.
– Mixing into green salads, grain bowls or chicken salad.
– Simmering with sugar or honey to make a simple wild cherry compote.
– Blending into smoothies along with banana, milk and ice.
– Making homemade frozen cherry pops by pureeing with coconut water or juice.
– Baking into muffins, scones or hand pies.
– Infusing in vinegar or whiskey for a unique flavored cherries jubilee topping.
– Canning or preserving as jam, chutney or syrup.
– Dehydrating or freezing harvested cherries to enjoy later.
Potential risks and side effects
When properly identified, wild cherries are likely safe for most people when consumed in moderation. Potential side effects may include:
– Stomach upset – Some wild cherries contain sorbitol, a natural sugar alcohol that can cause diarrhea in large amounts. Start with small portions.
– Oral allergy syndrome – Those with environmental allergies may react to wild cherries with itchy mouth or mild swelling.
– Cyanide poisoning – Eating toxic cherry varieties that contain cyanogenic glycosides can be deadly if a significant amount is consumed. Be extremely cautious with identification.
– Pesticide exposure – Foraging near roadways and industrial agriculture may lead to ingesting chemicals. Avoid suspect areas.
– Choking hazard – Some wild cherries have large pits relative to the flesh. Take care when snacking.
– Drug interactions – Wild cherries may amplify the effects of blood thinners like warfarin or anti-diabetic medications. Monitor closely if taking these drugs.
If you experience any concerning symptoms after eating wild cherries, seek medical advice immediately. And as always, it’s best to start with minimal portions to assess personal tolerance.
The bottom line
When properly identified and safely foraged, many species of wild cherries are perfectly edible and provide an extra burst of nutrients compared to cultivated varieties. Just be absolutely certain you’ve correctly identified the cherry species before ingesting. Misidentified toxic cherries can have severe consequences.
Intersperse wild cherry foraging with plenty of other whole, fresh foods as part of an overall healthy diet. With the right precautions and positive plant identification, wild cherries can be a fun, fruity nature snack when you’re out adventuring in the great outdoors.