Chokecherry

Although producing lovely flowers and tiny edible berries ideal for syrup, chokecherry trees can become invasive. Because they retain their leaves longer than native plants, for a short period in October the invaders stand out against the background, making them easy to locate and eradicate, if one has time to do so. 

"I’ve got to get back here and cut down those chokecherry trees,” I mused to myself. Frozen leaves crackled loudly under my shuffling feet and birch trees hung leafless and barren against a still-gray early morning September sky. But those darn cherry trees, escaped descendants of the ones I planted 30 years ago, still shone a pale but vivid green, visually jumping out against the quiet earth tones of autumn.

I couldn’t today, of course. I was out at dawn after a clear night brought the sub-freezing weather that sends bull moose moving out noisily, grunting and brush-raking their way in search of a cow. One had been passing by about once a week, and this chilly morning was as likely a time as any for the year’s meat to mosey along.

I didn’t get a moose that day, and several more early mornings passed before I connected. With the help of ever-generous friends and our niece Karen, the butchering job went quickly.

Maybe I’ll get to those chokecherry trees after all, I thought.

For years we enjoyed the bounty of the trees, making chokecherry syrup every fall. The sweet-astringent flavor of the rich dark concoction complemented pancakes as well as packing healthy vitamins and phyto-nutrients. However, after growing innocuously for 20 years, the trees suddenly became invasive. Baby trees burst forth in the nearby forest, growing rapidly to become productive themselves.

I don’t know what triggered this change. Perhaps early autumn temperatures had previously killed off the young plants. Unlike birch and other hardy locals, chokecherries haven’t adapted to be leaf-free by equinox-time. Perhaps newborn seedlings can’t survive when they don’t manage to withdraw nutrients back into their roots before winter’s freeze. Long lingering autumns now often allow a normal leaf drop in mid-October.

For whatever reason our chokecherries have started spreading. Birds carry the seeds, allowing trees, with their toxic leaves and bark, to disperse and displace the willow-and-aspen browse so important to moose and bunnies and beaver.

I cut down all our mature trees except the biggest one that shades a feed shed. Every spring at garden-planting time it bursts into an immense fragrant bridal veil of white, and I couldn’t resist keeping it. The lack of other trees for cross-fertilization prevented it from producing a glut of tiny cherries for birds to spread.

After spending over a week hunting followed by hauling and caring for meat and later the nonmeat parts for dog food and trapline bait, it took me nearly a week to catch up at home.

“I’ll get after those chokecherry trees tomorrow!” I vowed as I made the half-day expedition to the community Post Office to get processed meat into our big chest freezer (hooked into the community power plant) and to see Karen and my sister Julie off to Fairbanks. With Julie gone for a week I could focus on my own priorities with the chokecherries up near the top of the list.

But the next day I saw the pile of over-ripe tomatoes that needed stewing and freezing. With the wood cookstove burning for that job, I also processed a 20-pound pumpkin as well. Stuck inside, I cleaned up several days’ worth of dirty dishes and finally got around to washing my moose-bloodied overpants.

In spite of the resulting glop from an overnight downpour, I also pulled three 5-gallon buckets of muddy carrots, just half of those still in the ground, and then cut some of the remaining 400 pounds of meat-on-the-bone into meal-sized packages for our small home freezer until 11 p.m. Meanwhile the chokecherry leaves began their slow fade toward brownish-yellow-green.

The rest of the week fell away in likewise matter. I had to sew a lynx hat for an order. Pull the rest of the carrots. Hand-wash the wool moose-hunting sweater with its great glob of mud dried into one sleeve.

A swath of the floor four feet wide and ten feet long lay smothered in curing potatoes that needed to be picked up, sorted by size and hauled by bucketsful to the root cellar. I tore down and composted faded pea vines, unhooked and rolled the pea fencing, and pulled up the posts for winter storage before the ground froze.

Gladiola bulbs needed digging, and the rose and amaryllis plants potted and moved inside. I fertilized my peonies to encourage blooms next year, and raked up sodden leaves to mulch perennials, including the gooseberries I invested in last spring.

Cutting meat took two or three hours every day. Before I knew it, a week had flown by and I was finishing up mail before heading to the airstrip with a load of meat for the big freezer and to pick up Julie.

Then, after weeks of temperatures lingering in the 20s, it happened. With a northwest wind and clearing skies, on the night of Oct. 11 the temperature dropped to 20 degrees for the first time. By morning, instead of standing like striking green flags against their gray-brown background, the cherry trees had shed their leaves, to blend in so perfectly they’d be too hard to easily locate.

Eh, well. Maybe next year.

Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.