At the Heart


Common Name: Cherry, Black Cherry, Chokecherry

Botanical Name: Prunus virginiana, Prunus serotina, allied aromatic Prunus species

Energetics: Cool, dry

Taste: Sweet, aromatic, bitter

Parts Used: Flower, Bark, Leaf

I work with Western Black Cherry (Prunus serotina var. virens) and Western Chokecherry (that would be Prunus virginiana L. var. demissa) flowers, leaves and bark. Now yes, I can hear the protests already. I too have read all those herb books that say to never ever ingest the cherry leaf any which way or you’ll die. And more specifically, that you should only use the dried bark that has been collected in fall. I’ve used fresh (and dried) bark tincture from spring, summer, fall and winter and I’ve been eating the leaves and flowers for quite a while now and I’m not dead yet, nor have I noticed any adverse effects whatsoever. It probably would be unwise to eat a pile a leaves for breakfast, but you know, considering the taste, I don’t think you’d manage it anyhow. Do be sure to never ingest wilted, rotten leaves (of the Cherry or any other Rose family plant for that matter, like Raspberry or Rose or Hawthorn).

Nervine Effects

Flowers and leaves are very relaxing and calming. Similar to the bark of course, but I think it’s a bit stronger in the flowers. It borders on euphoric but is not noticeably sedating. It’s quite the mood enhancer and carries over well to the tincture. The tincture of the flower, leaves and bark together smells similar to that of Peach, and stronger than that made just with Cherry bark. The scent is, as expected, very much like a very strong tasting cherry or almond extract. The inner bark tastes sweet, slightly bitter and strongly aromatic. The flowers are sweet, astringent and have that somewhat overripe smell that Hawthorn flowers also have. The leaves are astringent, bitter and somewhat aromatic.

Chokecherry is especially useful as a nervine when the stress is centered in the heart/chest region, and threatening to keep you from breathing. A feeling of pressure or constriction around the lungs and heart is common. Heart palpitations or pounding may occur, as well as nervous stomach and shakiness. There's also often signs of heat such as a red tongue, flushing, sensations of excessive heat and inflammation throughout the body. The symptoms will often have a normally sane, articulate and well managed person ready to climb the nearest wall or down the closest bottle of Valium. Five drop doses are usually quite sufficient to calm, and ten drops will usually stop a full blown set of heart palpitation gently but firmly.

I have never used the tincture in large dosages, having found 1-10 drops to be quite sufficient thus far. I have given my young daughter (from age six to eight, so far) five drop doses as a treatment for feeling overheated, irritated and exhausted. She has had no adverse effects from the dose, and feels that it helps her feel relaxed and not so irritable and tired, she also says quite emphatically that it helps with her growing pains.

Heart Tonic

The bark has long been recognized as a specific for those with cardiac weakness, especially when accompanied by a chronic cough, palpitations, high blood pressure, digestive impairment and signs of heat and irritation from weakness. I’d venture to say that the flowers perform these functions, and then some. I’ve noticed that wild cherry flowers can sometimes elicit the same minor but noticeable momentary irregular heartbeat that Hawthorn does in some people. Clients have often been able to feel an immediate slowing or smoothing in their pulse. Very relaxing, verging on euphoric in sensitive individuals. An excellent nervine for use in cases of grief, broken-heartedness and hysteria. I have found a few drops of the tincture useful in stopping my own heart palpitations on occasion, and also notice the steadying and slowing of the pulse.

My clinical and personal experience shows Cherry to be very effective in the treatment of mild to severe anxiety attacks and heart palpitation, both as a strengthening preventative and as an in the moment treatment. It often works as well as or better than pharmaceuticals such as prozac, valium and other medication prescribed for anxiety and palpitations. It also has the seemingly magical ability to stop heart palpitations gently without causing a sudden drop in blood pressure or chest pain in many cases.

I've known for some time that Cherry and Rose both have a profound influence upon the heart, and have been delighted to find some literature that backs up my intuitive sense. Tommie Bass considered Wild Cherry to be a wonderful treatment for heart problems of any kind (as well as one of the most important liver herbs he knew of). Matthew Wood has asserted that the Native Americans made/make use of the tree for all sorts of heart problems, and says that:

"Wild Cherry should be seen primarily as a cardio-vascular remedy... The flavor is a pleasant blend of sweet and bitter, the temperature is both warm and cool, and the impression is astringent. The combination of warm and cool is very rare; it emphasizes the relationship to febrile and circulatory processes. Wild Cherry bark acts upon the cardio-vascular system, equalizing the circulation and reducing the irritation and congestion which would encumber the heart. The combination of sweet and bitter indicates a remedy that is especially nutritive, as both these flavors stimulate the secretions of the mouth, stomach and digestive system. Bitterness is associated with the heart and circulation as well, since it reduces irritation and fever. The nourishing influence indicated by the sweet flavor is directed, as it were, towards the heart. This is joined by the astringency, which also tones up the heart. Prunus serotina not only reduces irritation but nourishes, tonifies and strengthens the heart muscle. It also acts upon the digestive system, stimulating the appetite, promoting secretions, calming irritation and tightening and toning the mucous membranes...

"Wild Cherry equalizes the circulation, removing tendencies to hot and cold and excitation and exhaustion. It is valuable when there is irritation and excessive ardour of the pulse. It is also beneficial when there is feebleness, deficiency and intermittency of the pulse, usually found in chronic cases where the heart is exhausted. The cold infusion was long used as a remedy for irregular, intermittent action of the heart, with deficient pulse.

"Wild Cherry is the American Indian version of Crataegus (Hawthorn), which is also a member of the Prunaceae family used in heart and digestive problems."

Another quote by Finley Ellingwood also illustrates how highly Cherry has been regarded as a medicine for the heart:

“Wild cherry is popular in the treatment of mild cases of palpitation, especially those of a functional character, or from reflex causes. Palpitation from disturbed conditions of the stomach is directly relieved by it. It is said to have a direct tonic influence upon the heart when the muscular structure of that organ is greatly weakened, when there is dilation or valvular insufficiency, especially if induced by prolonged gastric or pulmonary disease.

As a remedy for dyspepsia it has many advocates. It is a tonic for the stomach improving digestion by stimulating the action of the gastric glands. It soothes irritability of the stomach from whatever cause. Although the properties of a nerve sedative are not ascribed to this agent, general nervous irritation is soothed by it administration, nervous irritability of the stomach and of the respiratory organs is allayed and a tonic influence is imparted to the central nervous system.”

Overall Tonic Effects

Also in the Eclectic and Physiomedicalist literature, you'll see that Chokecherry is often recommended as a tonic and for every kind of hot/irritated chronic condition stemming from debility (King's, Felter, Cook). From more modern usage, many of us are familiar with the common use of the syrup for acute coughs with fever and insomnia.

Felter specifically says:

"Wild cherry is an excellent sedative and tonic, quieting irritation of the mucosa, terminal nerves, and lessening violent cardiac action dependent upon weakness. When a tonic and sedative is desired that will not unduly excite the circulation, wild cherry is a most useful drug. As such it may be used in atonic dyspepsia, and in convalescence from fevers and inflammations, especially after pleurisy, pneumonia, and la grippe."

The tonic effects extend from the mucosa to the heart to the gut to the lungs. This seems like a big deal to me, especially coming from the previous understanding that "Chokecherry is for coughs", period. I use an elixir of the bark, and leaves for anxiety with insomnia, nervous stomach and heart palpitations, IBS triggered by acute anxiety, menopausal yin deficiency with accompanying heat, irritation, inflamed mucus membranes, hot flashes and heart palpitations, among many other things. It’s very multi-purpose and broad ranging, making it a must-have herb for my practice.

For burning, painful UTIs try it with Bidens and Bee Balm. And for viruses that tend to settle in the lungs and leave you exhausted, hot and pissed off, try it with (surprise) Elderberry. As a nervine for hot, irritated people try it with Passionflower or California Poppy. The options are endless.

Cautions & Contra-indications: The important pattern to notice in these indications is heat, irritation and anxiety. It's not appropriate or needed where there's already excessive relaxation of the tissue. If someone's already cold, sleepy and quiet, try some Wild Ginger, Osha or other spicy, stimulating herb instead.

Also, do not use the wilted or rotten leaves or flowers, it’s nasty and it’ll make you very sick. This is where all the prussic acid stuff comes in, but it only comes in if you ferment the plant, especially the leaves.

Preparations & Dosage: I use an elixir made with dried Chokecherry bark and flowers as a tincture with a proportion of 1:5 with brandy, and add enough glycerin to make it about 10 percent of the mix.  Some materia medicas suggest a dosage of anywhere from 20-50 drops, but I find that much smaller doses, starting from 3-4 drops to work quite well in most situations.

I don’t recommend subjecting Cherry bark or any other part to heat for any reason. If you want to make an infusion, try making a cold infusion over a period of a few hours. That said, Tommie Bass was renowned for his Cherry Tonic, in which he boiled the bark for a good amount of time, and that still seemed to work. I definitely prefer the taste of the non-heated preparations though.

Cherry Leaf Tea (Herbs Don’t Read Books)

Open the herbal book nearest to you, pretty much ANY herb book. Find the section on wild cherry or chokecherry, if there is one. Now check out the contradictions or warnings. It will almost certainly command you in very authoritative tones to NEVER EVER, NOT EVER consume cherry leaves or YOU WILL SURELY DIE. Poisonous, toxic, and perhaps outright evil, we are forbidden to ever partake in any communion with the leaves of any cherry species at all.

I’ve always thought this particular herbal rule was pretty strange, considering we use the bark of the cherry to good effect and in general, bark tends to be more toxic and stronger than leaves. So every time I gathered chokecherry bark in late summer, I would sadly discard the leaves from all my branches, inwardly mourning all that loss of perfectly yummy smelling plant matter.

So a few years ago a I started tincturing and making elixir from the flowering tips of Chokecherry branches, including flower, leaf and twig. This makes for an amazing medicine, that works wonderfully as a relaxant, cooling nervine as well as being overall cooling digestive tonic and anti-spasmodic, among other things.

More recently, when gathering Chokecherry twigs, I decided I just couldn’t throw away those leaves anymore. So I took three fresh, medium sized glossy green leaves and tossed them into a small teacup of hot water. I let them steep for about five minutes and then took a sniff. Wow, heavenly! Aromatic and sweet smelling and very almondy/cherry. I added a bit of honey and a splash of cream before taking a tentative taste. My thought was that if it was bitter and cyanide like I would immediately discard it, since cyanide does have a very distinctive and unpleasant taste. However, much to my very pleasant surprise, the tea was incredibly sweet, aromatic and all around heavenly. I proceeded to drink the whole cup with great relish. I then sat on the floor of our cabin and tried to feel how the plant was affecting my body. Hmm, slightly slowed but strengthened heart rate, definitely calming, muscular relaxation, digestive stimulation. Nice. Totally typical of Chokecherry bark.

It was so yummy I dried a bunch of leaves and started drinking it every night. Pretty soon Loba was drinking it too, we especially like it combined with Peach leaf and Rose petal. Next, Rhiannon, our resident nine year old Cherry fanatic, started drinking it too. Still, no problem, except that it was so relaxing as to deter me from my normal hyperactive work pace, which, upon considerations, might not actually be problem after all.

So I asked around on some herbal forums, most notably the Herbwifery forum, to see if anyone else drank Cherry leaf tea or used the leaves medicinally. Turns out at least one other very dependable herbalist (the Appalachian Herbwife herself, Rebecca Hartman) who not only drinks the tea but uses cherry leaves in pickle making.

Since then, a whole slew of friends (off and online) have tried out this tasty experiment and found it to be incredibly tasty and wonderful. You can use just the leaves, or perhaps more efficiently, a combo of leaves and twigs. Flowers are lovely as well, but of course only available fresh for a short time. If you have a plethora of trees though, you could always dry a nice amount of the flower. I tend to use all mine up for my Chokecherry Elixir.

Medicinally, it has pretty much the same properties as Chokecherry bark, except that it is a more pronounced nervine and has slightly less affinity for the lungs, and slightly more for the GI/Liver. It makes a nice wash for many inflammatory skin condition, especially where the skin looks “cherry red” (thanks to Matt Wood for that indication) or scarlet and very hot and irritated.

The only real danger seems to be ingesting wilted or rotten leaves that can indeed cause all sorts of problems. In short, don’t eat rotten leaves! It’s a bad idea in any plant and in some plants it can be a serious danger (Melilotus, Rubus, Prunus, Rose etc) so be sure to only use herbs that look healthy and if dried, are very similar to how they would appear in their fresh state. I also wouldn’t recommend drinking a gallon of the tea at a time, but it’s likely you’d pass out from sleepiness by then anyway.

Note: Many domestic Cherry trees don’t seem to have any aromatics and thus no taste (besides a sense of bland to slightly bitter astringency) as tea. It’s easy to check and see if your tree will make tasty tea or good medicine by scratching the bark of branch with your fingernail and sniffing. The stronger it smells the more strongly it will act and taste. 

Here’s a few ideas on how to make up some tasty beverage teas with Black Cherry and/or Chokecherry leaves, although they’re quite lovely all on their own as well.

Cherry Deluxe 

  • 1 Part Chokecherry Leaves

  • 1 Part Rose Petals

  • 2 Parts Peach Leaves

Honey and Cream to taste.

Spiced Cherry

  • 1 Part Chokecherry Leaves

  • 2 Parts Tulsi

  • 5 Cardamom Pods

Honey and Cream to taste.

Mountain Bark  Brew

  • 1 Part Chokecherry Leaves & Twigs

  • 1 Part Sassafras Root

  • 1 Part Black/Yellow Birch Bark

Honey and Cream to taste. Also great iced.