Chokecherry Jelly

“Woof!” said the bear and raced north. “Woof!” said my mother as she ran south. My father thought it was funny. He loved telling the story of how Mom was so focused on picking blackberries that she didn’t notice the black bear eating berries in the same patch. The bear was also oblivious to my mother, until both of them reached up for some high-hanging fruit and stood face to face just a few feet apart.

Mom always explained that she heard someone picking berries near her but assumed it was Dad. Though she was a bit suspicious, she accepted my father’s statement that he never saw the bear until both it and Mom were running full speed away from each other. “I didn’t know Ma could run that fast,” he would say, and laugh even more.

Bears are like us. They love ripe fruit. When they eat blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, they actually help berry pickers like us. Their trails through the patches make it easier for us to pick our share. But when they start gorging themselves on plums, apples or chokecherries, they can do some damage.

When we see a particularly nice bunch of fruit just out of reach, we fetch a ladder or simply move to another tree. Bears don’t use ladders, and they see no reason to leave a tree loaded with fruit. Black bears, the kind we have in our area of the country, are excellent  climbers. They dig their claws into the bark, shinny up the tree and crawl onto the branches loaded with fruit.

When you add a couple hundred pounds of bear to the fruit on the branch, it breaks and sends the bear to the ground. It also puts the fruit within easy reach. I have seen branches broken off over ten feet above the ground with no evidence of injured bears, so they obviously have learned how to do this safely.

Chokecherries must be a special favorite of black bears, for on an afternoon walk one sees dozens of the trees with skirts of broken branches surrounding the trunks. However, if you chance upon an apple orchard at at a deserted farmstead, you will find the same kind of damage. What we really see is the result of the bears’ need to put on fat to last them through their winter hibernation.

I don’t hibernate, and I certainly don’t need to add any more fat to my well-rounded figure, but like the bears, I really enjoy the flavor of wild berries. Give me blueberries for pie, raspberries for jam and chokecherries for jelly. And that means you have to imitate a bear and pick some chokecherries. You won’t need to break any branches. Look for a row of young chokecherry trees along a field or road. Trees that are five to eight feet tall are often the most productive with flexible branches that you can pull down without hurting the tree.

Since they grow in small clusters on the branches, chokecherries are easy to pick. Just strip them from the clusters and drop them in your container. The fully ripe cherries will be a lovely dark purple, almost black, but underripe ones are pink or red. You want a few underripe cherries to add extra pectin to the juice, so don’t worry about them as you strip the cherries from the trees.

You will need about three quarts of cherries for a batch of jelly. Once you learn how to strip the fruit from the clusters and have located some trees loaded with ripe fruit not yet harvested by a bear, you should be able to pick enough cherries in an hour or so. Here’s the recipe.


5 cups chokecherry juice

6 cups sugar

1/2 tsp. butter

1 package Sure-Jell Fruit Pectin

Paraffin or lids and rings to seal the jars


Wash the cherries and remove any leaves or other debris. Put the cherries into a Dutch oven or other large kettle and  cover them with cold water. Bring the cherries to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer them for twenty-five to thirty minutes. Crush them with a potato masher after they have simmered for twenty minutes or so.

Wash and sterilize nine one cup jelly jars and lids. The easiest way to do this is to put the washed jars upside down in a baking pan on the stove top. Add about an inch of water and bring it to a boil. Continue boiling for three or four minutes, then turn off the heat and allow the jars to stand in the water for another five minutes. Drain them on a rack and stand them upright on wax paper when you are ready to fill them.

Line a colander with several layers of dampened cheesecloth or a tea towel. Set the colander in a large bowl and ladle the cherries and juice into the colander. From time to time you will need to empty the bowl under the colander. Pour the juice into another bowl until you have collected at least five cups.

You can stir the cherries gently with a wooden spoon to help release juice, but do not squeeze the cloth or towel. If necessary, you can return the strained pulp and seeds to the large pot, add a half cup of water and reheat the mixture, stirring often, to obtain more juice. Rinse the cloth or towel before straining the reheated mixture.

Put five cups of juice, a half teaspoon of butter and the Sure-Jell into a three or four quart saucepan over moderate heat. Stir occasionally until the mixture comes to a boil, turn down the heat and skim any foam. Add the sugar and bring the mixture to a hard boil. Stir the jelly in a hard boil for two minutes.

Remove the pan of juice from the heat, skim any foam off the top of the jelly and fill the jars. Close them with lids and sterilize the filled jars in a hot water bath.

NOTES:  Don’t use liquid pectin like Certo®. I am not sure why, but when I substituted Certo® for the Sure-Jell crystals, the chokecherry jelly refused to jell. It tasted fine, so I called it syrup and gave it to friends. About six months later, I found a jar that I had overlooked in the pantry and decided to use it with some pancakes. Probably just to irritate me, it had turned to jelly!  So if you are willing to wait long enough you might get by with liquid pectin.

A note on picking berries in bear country: Contrary to what you may have been told about bears, bears don’t want anything more to do with you than you want to do with them. If they know that you are approaching, they will get out of your way. That’s why fishermen in Alaska wear a bell on their fishing vests or whistle while they walk the bear trails along the streams.

Once in a great while a bear does attack someone, but dogs kill or injure far more people every year in the United States than bears have killed or injured in the past fifty years. Incidentally, dogs provoke bear attacks. They challenge bears, then run away and lead the bears to their owners. You really do not want to try to reason with a bear irritated by your sassy dog.

Leave your dog at home and make human-type noises if you don’t want to come face to face with a bear. The only times I have seen bears in the woods was when I was quietly stalking trout. If Mom had been telling Dad how nice the berries were, the bear would have found a different place for lunch.

Wild Raspberry Jam

When I got back to the cabin from trimming one of the trails, I found a note on the table from Jerri that said simply, “11:20 Gone a-berrying.”

Whenever I see that expression I am reminded of Walden. Thoreau wrote in the chapter on “Visitors” that they included “Children come a-berrying.” And in the chapter on “Brute Neighbors” he described an incident when he was a-berrying: “Once, when berrying, I met with a cat with young kittens in the woods, quite wild, and they all, like their mother, had their backs up and were fiercely spitting at me.”

I am not as good a writer or philosopher as Thoreau, but I can top that story. Once when I was a-berrying I came face to face with a black bear who was picking from the same patch as I. He did not, however, spit at me but rather said “Oof” and ran away. At least he was not to be seen when I looked over my shoulder a few minutes later.

Determined that we would make at least one batch of wild raspberry jam this year, Jerri had begun her berrying scarcely two hours after we arrived at the cabin. The next day she persuaded me to help pick for the project, and now she was off again. We ended up with more than enough wild raspberries to make eleven jars of jam.

Wild raspberries are smaller than the tame varieties and do not grow in nice neat rows. The best raspberries at the cabin grow in tangles of dead branches and old tree trunks left by the logger who salvaged logs from the “big blowdown” of 2005. Balancing on piles of tree limbs while holding a plastic container half full of berries can be a nerve-wracking experience. Deer flies can make it even more exciting.

Perhaps the challenge of picking them makes the berries taste more flavorful, but whatever the reason, people tell us that our wild raspberry jam tastes a lot better than the stuff you can buy in the supermarket. For one thing we do not use any high fructose corn syrup or any other artificial ingredients. And for another, every berry is lovingly picked, washed and crushed by people who are going to enjoy some of that jam this winter–namely us.

You can buy some pretty good tasting raspberry jam in specialty stores, but nearly all of it is made with tame raspberries and still costs a fortune. You can make even better jam by spending a few hours enjoying the outdoors in a county or national forest while you harvest those beautiful delicate red berries and end up with jam that costs a lot less. That’s if you do not count your time, gas money, sugar and pectin. But it is more than worth it, and you too might meet a bear.

Making the jam is easy and foolproof if you follow the directions.


4 cups crushed raspberries
6 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 tsp. butter
1 pouch CERTO liquid pectin


First, wash and sterilize enough jelly jars to hold eight cups of jam. You can sterilize the washed jars by standing them upside down in a 9 x 13 inch cake pan on the the range. Pour about an inch of hot water into the pan, turn on the heat and bring the water to a boil. Boil for five minutes, then turn off the heat and leave the jars in the water while the jam is coming to a boil.

Put a slab of paraffin into a small sauce pan and set it aside.

Open the Certo pouch and stand it in a cup or glass where you can reach it easily when the time comes to add the pectin.

Be sure that all the berries have been picked over carefully and washed. Crush the raspberries with a potato masher and measure four cups of fruit into a three or four quart heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Measure the sugar into a mixing bowl, then stir the sugar into the crushed berries. Add a half teaspoon of butter to reduce foaming. Turn the heat on low and stir occasionally. As liquid is released, raise the heat to medium high and stir frequently.

When the jam nears a boil, put the sauce pan with the paraffin on a burner under very low heat to begin melting. Be careful not to heat the paraffin more than just to melt it. Using canning tongs or a potholder, lift the jars from the pan of hot water and allow them to drain on a rack.

Keep stirring and bring the jam to a full rolling boil (a boil that keeps bubbling when you stir it). Stir in the pectin and return the jam to a full rolling boil. Boil for one minute, stirring constantly.

Remove the jam from the heat and skim off any foam. A gravy ladle works great for this. Stand the jars upright on waxed paper. Using a dipper and a funnel, fill the hot jars, leaving 1/3 to 1/2 inch head space. If necessary, use a piece of moistened paper towel to remove any dribbled jam from the inside of the tops of the jars.

Using a tablespoon, put a thin layer of melted paraffin on top of the jam in each jar and allow the jam to cool without moving it. You can use a toothpick to pop any bubbles that may form in the wax before it has begun to harden. After the jam is well cooled, add a second thin layer of paraffin. Pour any remaining paraffin into a small plastic container, cover and cool. You can pop it loose and use it for your next batch of jelly or jam.

Let the jam cool thoroughly for several hours. Then cover the tops of the jars with screw caps or plastic wrap tied in place.

NOTES: We use different plastic funnels for filling jars with jams or jellies. For jellies we use an ordinary plastic kitchen funnel with a stem about 1/3 inch inside diameter. For jams we use a funnel with the stem cut off the bottom of the mouth so that the opening is about 3/4 inch.

You can make good raspberry jam with tame raspberries too. A friend let me pick enough from his bushes to make two batches of jam last year. Because tame raspberries are sweeter than the wild ones, I added a tablespoon of lemon juice to each batch and the result was very tasty.