The Wild Cherry

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Native Americans processed and ate the pits
of this widespread and tasty summer fruit

Nyerges has been leading Wild Food Outings since 1974.  He is the author of Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,  Foraging California, Extreme Simplicity, and other books. For a schedule of his classes, and information about his books, contact School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or on-line at
Wild cherry is a common, widespread plant throughout North America.  Where I live in Southern California, there are five native species of wild cherry found throughout the Pacific Coast region.  People are surprised because they do not think of this semi-desert area which rarely gets frosts as being able to support cherries. Yet, these varieties are well adapted to this climate, with deep roots, and thick — almost waxy — leaves so it can survive periods of drought.
Wild cherries are believed to be the most widespread wild shrub throughout all of  North America.  The Prunus genus not only includes all wild and domestic cherries, but also nectarines, peaches, plums, and almonds. 
One of the first historical accounts of the local indigenous people eating wild cherries comes to us from Father Junipero Serra, who passed through the San Gabriel Valley area of Southern California in July of 1769.  He noted that the local Indians (the “Gabrielinos”) used various fruits, grass seeds and other wild seeds, etc.
Most of the year, the evergreen cherry bushes or trees will resemble holly, and people will often guess that they are looking at holly bush.  I tell my students to take a leaf and crush it and wait a few seconds to get a whiff of that characteristic odor.  Most agree that the odor resembles bitter almond extract used in cakes.  In fact, this sweet odor is from the presence of hydrocyanic acid (“cyanide”).  This is why you do not make tea from the leaves.

If we are hiking around the cherries in late summer, there will invariably be fruit on the bush.  Some will be ripe enough for us to taste.  Most people can look at this fruit, and guess that it is edible. (However, I strongly urge you to never assume any wild berry or plant is edible simply because you subjectively think “it looks edible.”  That can be a quick way to get sick, or die.  Never eat any wild plant if  you haven’t positively identified it as an edible species.)  I typically will sample a wild cherry and let my students taste one before I tell them what it is.  The taste is not identical to commercial farm-grown cherries.  There isn’t quite as much sugar in the wild cherries, and they have a bitter underflavor and a tartness that makes them uniquely enjoyable, especially when you’re in the back country with meager food rations.  After a few bites, someone will guess that they are eating a cherry. 
In wet years, there is a thicker, sweeter layer of pulp around the large seed.  In dryer years, the pulp layer is thin — even paper-thin in drought years. 
And though the Indian population certainly enjoyed the pulp of these cherries in the past, they considered the seed as the more important food source.  Seeds were saved, and their thin shells removed.  There is a solid pulp inside the pit, just the same as there is with the store-bought cherry pits.  When you chew on the pulp, you’ll find a pleasant combination of that almondy-bitterness and sweetness.  Though it might be OK to nibble on a few, these seeds were always shelled and leached if substantial amounts were going to be consumed. 
The process of removing the hydrocyanic acid is essentially the same as for acorns. You shell the seeds, and boil the pulp for about half an hour, changing the water a few times.  Generally, you will not need to process cherry seeds as long as acorns. In fact, three boilings of cherry seeds are sufficient to render them safe to eat (whereas, acorns might require a much longer leaching time). The final product is then ground into flour, and mixed into breads, pancakes, soups, or other mush-type dishes.  It is good, and is a sweet flour. 
Shelling cherry seeds

whole seed in bag; shelled in bowl

3x boiled seed, ready to eat
The Cahuilla people of the desert in the vicinity of Palm Springs called this plant cha-mish, and today refer to it as a chokecherry.  They did not typically use the leached seed for breads, but almost exclusively for soups or mush.  Sometimes they made the meal into little cakes.  When dried, they were quite hard and black.  They could then be stored a long time, and would be reconstituted in water before eating.   One form of pemmican was also made by adding the fruit of these chokecherries with deer or elk meat. 
There is a great photo essay on making cherry seed atole (and other cherry seed foods) in “Ethnobotany Project: Contemporary Uses of Native Plants” by Ramirez and Small, and published by
Dr. James Adams, co-author of “Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West,” adds applesauce to a cherry seed mush that he makes, and he reports that all his students enjoy it.
The inner bark of the wild cherries was also used for its medicinal value. A tea from the bark was used for diarrhea, stomach inflammations, and — among the Cherokee — the tea was said to help relieve the pain of labor during childbirth.  This medicine was also listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1820 as a sedative. 

People of the 1800s and earlier would make syrup and soup from the cherries and use it as a medicine for whooping cough. The Miwok Indians of Northern California believed that eating the raw fruit was good for the voice. The bark of the cherries has been used extensively in cough medicines.  The use of cherry fruit or bark in cough medicines was not just for flavor.  But like with so many old fashioned medicinal remedies of the past, the modern counterparts that are now sold in stores are typically all sugar and artificial flavors.  Thus, horehound candy rarely has horehound in it, marshmallows have no marshmallow extract, and even the “cherry” cough medicines do not always have real cherry in it.  The price we have paid for our “advanced culture” is using more sugar, and concomitant health problems — but that is another topic.
Due to the presence of anthocyanins in cherries, eating about 20 cherries provides the same anti-inflammatory effects as two aspirin, according to Alternatives.
Long, straight branches of the various wild cherries are often used for making archery bows, backrests, baby cradles, and various other crafts. 
The cherry is an attractive plant, somewhat conspicuous in the hillsides because of its somewhat shiny leaves.  The leaf shape of the common holly-leaf cherry (P. Ilicifolia) is very much like a camelia leaf, a simple ovate to round leaf with fine teeth along the margin.  In the spring, many white flowers develop, and as the summer progresses, you will see many small green cherries as they develop.  The fruits turn pink, then red, and then nearly black when they are ripe and at their best. 
Though great as a trail nibble, there are many recipes that you can make from the seeds’ pulp, and the deseeded fruit.  Uses for the fruit include jams and jellies, fruit pemmican, juices, and even ice cream. 
I recall taking a late August hike in the Angeles National Forest up a trail I’d never been on before.  There was no water along the four mile, uphill road that eventually led to one of the old, now-abandoned fire-lookout stations.  Though I foolishly neglected to bring along a canteen, I collected many of the ripe and very sweet wild cherries along the trail, and I ate them sparingly along the way.  I ate them sparingly, because if you consume a lot of the fruits raw, they can have a laxative effect.  I ate about three dozen fruits over the course of about three hours, and suffered no laxative results.
Keep in mind when you are collecting your wild cherries that bears enjoy this fruit also.  We’ve often observed abundant cherries in bear scat.  So be mindful and alert when you’re in wilderness areas during cherry season.

The seed readily sprouts, and I have occasionally kept the wild seeds which had particularly large or tasty fruits, and planted them in my yard or in pots.  I have several that sprouted and are now taller that I am, though I have not yet had fruit crops from these.      

“Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants”

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Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants

[Nyerges’ “Guide to Wild Foods” book, originally published in 1978, was published in full color as of 2014.  The book, now titled “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,” is available at bookstores, Amazon, and at  It has been adopted for use as a college textbook in one college.]

My earliest interest in wild food began around 1967 as I began my awareness of the the Native Americans who lived in Los Angeles County in the pre-Spanish era who gathered and hunted all their food.  I wanted to learn how to do that too, because I thought I would be a good survival skill, and mostly because I thought it was one of the most essential things a person could do, anywhere, at any time.

I studied all I could from the local library, and by enrolling in botany classes in high school and then college. I made the effort to study with whomever I could, when the opportunities arose: Native Americans, Amish, gardeners, botanists, bums — whoever knew about plants and was willing to share their knowledge with me.

By 1974, I was asked to lead Wild Food Outings with the Los Angeles-based non-profit, WTI, whose focus was to educate in all aspects of survival. I fit in well, and not only led the walks (and continued to this day) but started work on a book about local wild foods.  It took the next four years of typing and researching and asking questions and compiling notes, but finally my stacks of seemingly-random notes were taking shape into a book.

My notes consisted of various piles of paperwork that I stacked around my bedroom, and which I finally began to order when I started a typesetting job at the Altadena Chronicle.  The editor, Sue Redman, allowed me to write a column each week which I called “The Emergency Plant Survival Guide,” which was eventually assembled into a photocopied 8 ½ x 11 format.   In many ways, I wrote the book for myself, as a way to assemble my own diverse notes and experiences about using plants for food, and other uses.

By then, I’d met and began studying with botanist Dr. Leonid Enari, who really opened my eyes to the vast botanical world “out there.” Dr. Enari – who I call the greatest botanist that no one knows — was instrumental in shaping that very crude first edition of what we then called “A Southern California’s Guide to Wild Foods.”

The second edition, completely revised, came out within another two years or so, and then soon another revised edition with more plants being added each time.

At the time, there was no other book like this one which appealed to the common useful plants in the Southern California area.  There were a few academic books, though they didn’t appeal to the person who wanted to actually try these plants. And there was no internet then, so all my research was done in libraries or with first-person interviews, or spending all day to get somewhere just so I could learn one new fact about one plant.

The fourth edition was released in 1995, and in many ways this was my favorite version since all the plants drawings were painstakingly done in my own hand.  But today, everyone wants color photos. 

Finally, in the spring of 2014, the book was released in full color, which is perhaps the ultimate format we’d dreamed about in the mid-1970s when the idea for this book was formulated.

One of my greatest surprises came one morning while listening to the old American Indian hour on Pasadena City College Radio. Dorothy Poole, aka Chaparral Granny, was talking about the uses of certain local wild plants.  As I listened, it sounded vaguely familiar.  I quickly pulled out my copy of “Guide to Wild Foods” and opened to the plant she was talking about.  Imagine my surprise to see that she was reading directly from my book!  I felt honored that she felt my compilation and personal commentary was worthy of sharing on the American Indian hour.

The book helps the beginner understand the basic botanical terminology, and quickly shows the reader how to best utilize many of the common wild plants for food, medicine, soap, etc. 

Many of the plants listed in the book are not  native, and are considered invasive weeds. They are the plants that gardeners love to pull up and toss in the trash, or worse, to spray Roundup on them so they don’t come back.

It turns out that some of the wild foods are more nutritious than much of what we find in the supermarket. And they taste good too, if you simply take the time to learn how to prepare them.

In “Guide to Wild Foods,” you learn that the brown pod from the carob trees planted all over Southern California are edible, and are an excellent source of calcium and B vitamins.

You also learn that dandelion is the richest source of beta carotene (not carrots), and that purslane is the richest plant source of Omega 3 fatty acids, and that the common lambs quarter is like nature’s mineral tablet.

The book includes many of the Native American uses of plants, such as the yucca plant which was a valuble soap and fibre source, as well as three types of food. And you learn about many of the natural cures to poison oak, including the seemingly unusual treatment that I’ve done for the past 30 years.

Now titled “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,”  it is available at Amazon, at bookstores, and at

10 Wild, Off-Grid Foods You Can Forage For Each Fall

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10 Wild, Off-Grid Foods You Can Forage For Each Fall

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From backyard gardens to large-scale farms, fall is often viewed as harvest time. But “nature’s garden” is in full yield in the autumn, too, as the trees begin to lose their leaves and heavy frosts set in.

Following are a few of the highest-yielding, nutritious wild foods that are ready for harvest in the fall. You will need a good plant ID book to make sure you get the right plant. As with foraging at any time, do NOT eat anything you are not 100 percent certain is the correct plant.

Root Crops

Many plants begin to bring their energy into their roots in the fall to wait out the winter underground, in preparation for a growth explosion in the spring. Most root crops can either be dug up with a shovel, or pulled up after loosening the soil around them with the garden fork.

1. Burdock (Arctium species): a variety of burdock has been eaten in Japan for centuries, and with a delicious sweet flavor and a delightful crunchy texture, it’s well worth trying. Burdock should be harvested the fall of their first year (before they produce along central stock with flowers) and can be dried or eaten right away.

2. Chicory (Cichorium intybus): known as an excellent coffee substitute, chicory is best harvested once the top of the plant mostly dies, sending its energy to the roots. It can be roasted and ground into a powder for a delightful tea high in nutrients.

3. Dandelion (Taraxacum species): another potential coffee substitute, dandelion roots are known as a powerful medicine and can be roasted much the same way as chicory. Be careful not to confuse them with chicory, since the leaves look similar.


Many nuts are available in the fall, and they are available from year to year under two categories: mast year nut producers, and annual producers. Mast year nuts produce nuts irregularly from year to year, with some years being “mast years” of high production, and other years yielding few or no nuts at all. Many nuts can be harvested simply by waiting until they fall to the ground, particularly after strong winds around the time they are ripe. One can put a tarp under the tree to catch the nuts during windy periods, knock the branches with a long stick, climb a ladder and shake the branches (or shake the whole tree if small enough), or get a good, solid throwing stick and chuck it at the nuts to dislodge them. Nuts keep longer once dried for two weeks either in a cotton sack (e.g. old pillow case), or on screens, and then roasted. You may also choose to purchase specialized “pickers” for your nuts to pick them up off the ground, which can be purchased online.

4. Acorns (Quercus species): With mast years every 2-3 years, acorns fall when they are ripe in early- to mid-fall, especially during wind events.

5. Walnuts (Juglans species): Irregular mast producers, walnuts may still produce at least some nuts during low-production years. They are both delectable and nutritious, though some species such as black walnut (Juglans nigra) are more difficult to shell, with relatively little nut meat, while others, such as English walnut (Juglans regia) have much bigger nuts with thinner shells. Depending on the species, they ripen throughout the fall. The hulls can be removed by stomping on them and rolling them with your feet, or they can be cut off with a knife by cutting a line around their diameter and removing by hand with a good, thick set of gloves (the hulls will stain your hands). You can then put them in a bucket with a lid, some gravel, and a bit of water, and shake the bucket vigorously to remove hull remnants, followed by a good rinse before drying (old pillow cases hung indoors away from sun work well). Dispose of the hulls by spreading them across the landscape away from gardens, as black walnuts especially can damage soil life and inhibit plant growth.

6. Hickories (Carya ovata, Carya laciniosa, Carya palida, Carya tomentosa, and Carya ovalis): Closely related to pecans, but often sweeter tasting, most hickories produce annually, ripening in the early fall, or late summer. Once dry, husks are easy to remove.

7. Pecans (Carya illinoinensis): Another irregular mast producer, they are usually ready in November, when they fall consistently from the trees. Some trees may have very small nuts that are difficult to remove from shells, though as with other hickories, husks are fairly easy to remove.

8. Hazelnuts (Corylus species): Ripening from late August through September, as with all nuts, you’ll have to beat the squirrels to hazels. Nuts can be found during mast years under the leaves and are easy to remove from the shell.

Other Fall Forage Crops

9. Apples (Malus domestica): There are many wild or untended apple trees growing throughout North America and elsewhere. Once you start looking in the fall, they shouldn’t be hard to spot in a good year. Similar to nuts, many apple trees don’t produce a heavy crop every year. Lower quality apples can be used to make apple chips (simply by cutting and dehydrating), or apple cider.

10. Hackberry / Sugarberry (Celtis species): There are several species of hackberry, many of them containing a delectable and sweet date flavored dark, light brown or orangish berry ready in mid to late fall. One way to harvest them is to wait until the leaves fall from the tree, put a tarp under the tree and shake the tree or branches vigorously. Due to their low moisture and high sugar content, the berries keep quite well without any processing and can be stored in paper bags or simply in a bowl or container that allows excess moisture to escape.

Although there are many other wild foods available for harvest in the fall, this list of higher-yielding foods is a good place to start. Other wild foods to look out for in the fall include rosehips, elderberries, watercress, amaranth seed, ground nut and many others. Fortunately, most plant ID books give a good indication as to the season that a given crop is available, so hopefully this will only be the start of your journey to find the best foods nature has to offer in your area.

If you have your own favorite fall forage crops you like to harvest in the fall, please share in the comments below!

Currant Season!

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I love the wild currants, but I gotta say the picking is quite labor intensive.

It’s THAT time of year again, when the currants begin to ripen and are ready to be picked and dried for the year.  It always manages to happen when the weather gets hot, meaning any foraging trips require plenty of water, cooling clothing, and in this Ginger’s case, plenty of sunscreen.

But the effort is worth it.

I use wild currants in a lot of my baked goods, including my homemade brioche, muffins, and pancakes.  And earlier this year Dave McCallum soaked them in whiskey for our Valentine’s Day Gluten Free Foraged Cake!


This is my brioche, mid bake, with dried currants from a nearby park.

So I think this week I’ll be taking Hunny B. out to my favorite currant picking spot to gather and dry enough berries to get us through the year.  I don’t need many, the flavor is very strong so usually less than a gallon is enough to get us through til next season.

But I’d better do it soon.  Carolina’s parents are visiting from Chile at the end of the month and love my Wild Currant Brioche.

Just remember, whenever you forage, to use proper foraging etiquette.

Oh!  I almost forgot – speaking of Chile, we’re back with new episodes on Memorial Day!  We start with a trip to Chile, with urban foraging, a live volcano, and a hike to a glacier that gets us in a little over our heads.  Don’t miss it!