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 effecting 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 Chokecherry leaves, although they’re quite lovely all on their own as well.