In commercial agriculture, we love cherries for their sweet fruit and discard the pits. However, when it comes to wild cherries—those who naturally have less fleshy fruits and much, much larger pits, the tables have turned. Besides acorns, the kernels (the seed inside the pit) of holly leaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia), were one of the most important sources of food for the native people of Southern California. Despite containing prussic acid, it can be safely enjoyed when leached properly.
But what’s the big deal about prussic acid? This compound is a type of hydrocyanic acid that is metabolized by the body into cyanide, which is toxic to most animals including humans. Consequences of eating too much of this compound is severe and deadly. Symptoms of cyanide poisoning include headache, nausea, vomiting, fast heartrate and shortness of breath. As a side note, prussic acid and amygdalin are compounds in cherry bark that is used medicinally to ease coughs and as a sedative. When cooking the kernels, you’ll notice a fragrant almond or marizpan aroma emanating from your cooking water. This is the prussic acid. Sounds a bit scary and daunting, no?
Sounds a bit scary and daunting, no?
Many other foods commonly eaten must be properly cooked first in order to render them safe to eat. For example, if we do not cook potatoes, lima and kidney beans, many wild mushrooms, cassava, eggplant, elderberries, acorns and of course most all raw meats, can be toxic.
Cooking plants that are inedible when raw has increased the number of species (and nutrients) we can utilize from our environment—contributed to the survival of our species when other foods were less readily available.
Ready to try holly leaf cherry kernels? Let’s do it.
Holly leaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) and its relative Catalina cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii) are evergreen shrubs native to the west coast chaparral regions, especially north facing slopes, from Mendocino County, California to Baja California, Mexico and east into the Mojave desert. Their white flowers appear in late spring with round, reddish fruit ripening during the later summer months. Their plump fruits are deceiving as they are mostly seed and very little fruit. But, pop one in your mouth and chew off the sweet flesh for a tasty treat and spit out the pit. They often fruit in abundance if you get to them before the birds and coyotes do (you’ll see mounds of the naked seeds left behind on the trails as they have passed through the digestive system of the animal intact).
After you’ve collected a good amount of fruits, say a small bucketful (ensuring that you leave plenty for the wildlife to eat—this is a crucial time for critters to find fruits that offer much needed hydration during the driest part of the year), give them a quick rinse to remove any dirt and debris, discarding any that have been already gnawed on or infected with bugs.
I’ve tried plenty of different methods of removing the fruit and none of them are incredibly effective. Best tool are your hands. Peel the fruits by slicing the skin with your fingernail (for efficiency… if you’d rather use a knife, go for it, but you’ll much prefer using your fingernail after cherry number three) and working off the skin. The fruit sticks readily to the pit so I just do my best using my fingers to scrape it off and into a bowl.
Note on using holly leaf cherry fruit: Separating the fruit is arduous. The fruit doesn’t fall off the pit like commercial cherries. It’s not fun, it’s a mess. Unfortunately, I find them to have some bitterness in large quantities like when I’ve tried to make a sorbet, ice cream, jam, sauce, etc… you have to add a ton of sugar to attempt to balance it out. And I don’t like adding sugar. They may do better cooked down. But anyways, we’re talking about the kernels here.
A few hours later, you now have a bowl full of holly leaf cherry pits. Awesome. Well done. Now we have to crack those shells and remove the kernels. Wait, what? Yep, let’s get back at it.
I find it best to rinse off the pits and clean them briefly of any remaining fruits. Keeps them from slipping around when you crack them. I use a heavy duty stone molcajete to just tap the shells which usually crack nicely right along the seam where the two halves meet. Pick out the kernel, again with your fingernail, or a walnut pick can work too. Sometimes a second crack with the stone is needed to dislodge the kernel.
Now, a few more hours later, you have an even smaller bowl full of kernels. Excellent! Now, using that molcajete, smash and grind the kernels into a pulp. This helps to more effectively extract all of those hydrocyanic acids once in the water—and yes, make the job of straining and changing the water even more difficult if they had been left whole. Easy peasy, right? No, don’t answer that.
Add your ground cherry kernels to a pot full of water. Bring to a boil and soon your kitchen will smell delightfully of marzipan and almonds. Again, that is the cyanide being released. Boil for around 15 minutes. Use a fine mesh strainer (I like the stainless steel coffee strainers) to separate the liquid. Discard the liquid and return the pulp to the pot with clean water. Bring to a boil and repeat the process. After the second boiling, taste the kernel pulp and it should no longer be bitter. And its totally okay, you can be surprised at how pleasant it tastes.
Now the fun part! (Wait, we haven’t been having fun all along?!) At this point you can decide how you want to use your holly leaf kernel pulp. It can be eaten as is, kinda like a porridge… add some honey, spices, throw in some of that cherry pulp you have left over. Tasty. Or, you can dehydrate the pulp and grind it into a fine flour to use anywhere you’d use a nut flour (like almond.. which technically, is pretty similar). I’ve made cookies, pie crusts, cakes, breads, crackers (yeah, you can try savory too!)… so many uses. It stores well for at least a year or more.
Have you tried cherry kernels? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear how others use this tasty food.