After the petals fall off, and before the cherries turn red, we cover the branches with netting to keep them from being devoured by birds. This year, the cherries are particularly abundant, and it’s been a race with the birds to see who gets them first. Luckily, there are so many cherries that there are plenty to share.
Nanking cherry plants (prunus tomentosa) originate in Asia. The bushes don’t take up a lot of space and are drought-resistant, hardy and easy to grow. They don’t require any pesticides. They’re short at 6 to 10 feet, so the cherries can be picked easily. At that height they don’t cast too much shade on other plants. And they don’t block the sun from reaching the thermal air panels on the south wall of our house that supply solar heat in the winter.
Picking the cherries is time-consuming, but can be fun if turned into a social activity. On Sunday Betsy and I donned our picking containers, made out of cut-off plastic milk jugs. With our hands free, we picked three pounds of cherries in 45 minutes. On Monday we refined our technique and picked one and three-quarter pounds in 15 minutes.
Next we laid the berries out on a tray and picked off whatever stems and leaves came along for the ride. We put the cherries in a pan with water (3 cups to 3 pounds) and brought them to a boil, then cooked them for 10 minutes. We then put them through an old-fashioned food mill to separate the juice and pulp from the skin and pits. After cooling, this juice and pulp went into the freezer to await the making of jam.
On a cool fall day Betsy will combine the thawed cherry pulp with crabapple juice, which is tart and full of pectin. She gathers crabapples from a public shade tree and cooks and strains them in a way similar to the cherries. Mixing four cups of the juices with three cups of sugar in a large, stainless steel cookpot, she will bring this to a boil. After that she’ll cook it at a low boil until it reaches the jellying point, or when it sheets off a spoon (the spoon on the right in the illustration). She’ll fill clean glass jars with the hot liquid jam, top with lids and rings, and process in a hot-water bath for 15 minutes. Homemade cherry-crabapple jam is delicious and makes an excellent gift.
The fruits and berries of summer are the foundation for happy breakfasts all year round. Betsy also makes raspberry jam from our own raspberries, and picks autumn olive berries, from an invasive plant found all around our area, for tart, high-lycopene jam. Our gooseberry bushes, now in their third year of bearing, are very abundant this year.
Like Aesop’s ants, we will be working hard all season, picking and processing these fruits for the long winter ahead. Come on, fellow ants, it’s jamming time!