Perhaps our most beautiful wood
by Steve Carroll, Contributing Columnist
Mention cherry trees in the mid-Atlantic, and most people think first of the spring display of Yoshino cherries in Washington’s Tidal Basin. Fair enough, but our region is also home to several native cherries, the largest and most valuable of which is black cherry.
Black cherry (Prunus serotina) occurs naturally from Nova Scotia to Minnesota, south to east Texas and central Florida, with disjunct populations in central Texas, Mexico and Central America. The genus Prunus, a member of the rose family, includes other familiar fruit and nut trees, such as plums, peaches, apricots and almonds.
BLACK CHERRY CHARACTERISTICS
Black cherries make handsome specimen trees. White flowers hang in four- to six-inch, upright to pendulous clusters. They are visited by native bees, honeybees, flies and beetles, and, after pollination, they form purple to blue-black fruits.
The cherries are bitter if eaten off the tree but can be used to make jelly, jam and syrup. Leaves are two to five inches long, oblong to lance-shaped, and finely toothed. They turn yellow, orange or red in the fall.
The bark of young trees displays distinctive horizontal rows of pores for gas exchange. Older bark is dark, with small scaly plates. With their characteristic upturned edges, these dark plates have been likened to burnt potato chips. When snapped, twigs emit a characteristic almond smell.
Twigs, leaves and fruit pits contain a compound that releases hydrogen cyanide, especially if twigs are broken or leaves are wilted or damaged. This makes them toxic to horses, cows, pets and humans. For this reason, it’s best not to plant black cherry in or adjacent to fields where livestock graze.
Many eastern forest types include black cherry, but, because it doesn’t tolerate shade, it is often overtopped by other species. If a cherry has enough sun, however, it can grow taller than its neighbors. Trees in our region can reach 60 to 100 feet tall and one to four feet in diameter. The National Champion black cherry grows in a cemetery in Norfolk, Va.
Black cherry can be somewhat weedy, especially if birds disperse seeds in their droppings, evidence of which can often be seen along fence lines and hedgerows, and under power lines. This species occurs in a variety of habitats but does not grow well in extreme wet or dry sites.
BLACK CHERRY USES
Cherry fruits are eaten by birds, raccoons, mice, chipmunks and other wildlife, and deer browse saplings. This tree is also the host plant for many butterflies and moths, including tiger swallowtails, cecropia moths, promethea moths and others; it’s also used by tent caterpillars.
Native Americans used the leaves, bark and fruits medicinally, and extracts are still used in some cough medicines. European pioneers used the fruit to flavor whiskey and other spirits, leading to another common name for this tree — rum cherry.
These uses aside, black cherry is most prized for its hard, rich, red-brown heartwood that is widely used in furniture-making. It is also used to make flooring, doors, caskets, tool handles and other products. Glen Blouin, author of “An Eclectic Guide to Trees,” describes black cherry as “one of the finest cabinet woods in the world.”
The next time you visit the nation’s capital to take in the National Cherry Blossom Festival, enjoy the display, but know that you will likely drive past equally beautiful, native cherries on your drive home.
Steve Carroll is a botanist and ecologist who speaks and writes about trees, gardening and the world of plants. He is the co-author of “Ecology for Gardeners,” published by Timber Press.