Eastern Shore Food Lab

Prunus serotina - Black Cherry

The showy white flowers appear as pendulous clusters in early spring followed by dark, pea-sized fruits in late summer which when ripe make a delicious, but tart berry. The mature bark is dark and scaly, often flipping on the edges.

Scientific Name: Prunus serotina

Common Names:  Black Cherry, Rum Cherry, Wild Black Cherry

Plant Family: Rose Family (Rosaceae)

Etymology: Prunus is an ancient Latin name for the plum. The suffix –serotina means flowering late and ripening late

Edible Parts

The leaves and fruit of the tree are edible raw. The tree has been used to flavor rum and brandy. Pitted fruits are edible and are eaten raw; the fruits can also be used in jelly, jam and wine.

Historic Uses

In traditional Mexican medicine, teas and syrups prepared from the leaves and fruits of the black cherry tree are used for treating hypertension, stomach upsets, mouth infections, diarrhea, malaria, bronchitis, and cough.  The seeds are boiled for use in the treatment of cough. Black cherry bark has been used by the Iroquois, Ojibwa, Malecite, and Delaware indigenous people from the North American boreal forest regions of Canada for treating diabetes-related symptoms. The Chippewa use the bark to dress wounds/burns, alleviate ulcers, and coughs. They additionally ate the berries and used the twigs to create a tea-like bitter beverage. The Iroquois used the root to make a salve to alleviate burns, coughs, and colds. The Cherokee used it to help aid in childbirth, fevers and blood borne diseases. Additionally, it was used as a food just as much as a medicine. Black cherry is prized for its wood and is often used in furniture.

Habitat

The black cherry tree is widespread in eastern North America, from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec, Canada, Minnesota and North Dakota, southward to Florida and east Texas, with outlying populations in central Texas, west Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The black cherry additionally is native in the South of Mexico to Guatemala. It usually occurs as scattered individuals in various types of mixed forests and second-growth hardwood forests; at elevations of 0-1520 meters.

How to Identify

The bark of larger trunks is fissured and scaly, but thin. Leaves alternate, simple, ovate to oblong lanceolate, 5-15 cm long, 2.5-5 cm wide, with finely toothed margins commonly with reddish hairs along the midrib beneath, near the base. Numerous flowers. The fruit is black and berry-like, about 8-10 mm in diameter, obovoid, black when ripe; seed a single, black, ovular 6-8 mm long.

Additional Information

The seeds contain a high amount of readily available nutrients especially protein. Black cherry leaves may pose risk to pregnant women due to their cyanide content. Seeds that pass through the digestive tracts of birds also have higher survival rates than undigested seeds. There are multiple sub-species of wild black cherry.

Planting Considerations

Seeds may be produced on trees as young as 10 years, but maximum production occurs on trees 30-100 years old. Some seed is produced yearly, with good crops produced at 1-5-year intervals. High proportions of the seeds are viable. Because of long-distance seed dispersal by birds and mammals, seedlings are often abundant in sites with no or few reproductive black cherry trees.

Wild black cherry is shallow-rooted and has a tendency to shade out other trees in mixed forests. The black cherry is susceptible to being blown over by the wind. Best results in establishing black cherry on recently reclaimed or rehabilitated areas are by planting 1-year or older nursery grown seedlings. The eastern tent caterpillar and the cherry scallop shell moth are pests that eat the leaves of the black cherry. Additionally, black cherry is susceptible to the fungal disease “black knot” which causes elongated, rough, black swellings on the twigs, branches, and trunk.

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-9
  • Native Range: North America
  • Forest Garden Layer: Canopy
  • Permaculture functions: Medicinal, edible, materials, and attracts animals
  • Soil: Acid, moist, well-drained soil
  • Height: 40 feet
  • Spread: 20-30 feet
  • Growth rate: Fast
  • Sun: Full sun (6 hours direct light daily), partial sun/shade (4-6 hours light daily)
  • Bloom: March, April, May, June
  • Attracts: Cavity-nesting birds, game birds, game mammals, insect pollinators, small mammals, songbirds
  • Tolerates: Dry sites, alkaline soil, road salt
  • Drawbacks: Leaves may kill wildlife if they eat too much of it. Can become invasive outside of North America

Sources