Black Cherry

Prunus serotina

by John Brouwer

Black cherry is native to the Maritimes, southern Quebec and Ontario, and eastern United States south to Florida and Texas.

Black cherry fruit looks like a small version of the cultivated sweet cherry. The fruit is small and has a round seed like cherries. Unlike the sweet cherry, black cherry fruit is astringent and bitter. However the fruit is flavourful and has been used as the primary flavouring in liqueurs, soda, and ice cream. Where the flavouring is used in brandies, the tree is known locally as rum cherry. Black cherry flavouring is used as it has a sharper taste than sweet cherry. That flavour sharpness is used to accent dark chocolate in cakes and various drinks.

Similar to the cultivated sweet cherry, black cherry is popular with birds. Birds are the primary agent for seed dispersal as the seed moves through their digestive tract. Seedlings can be readily found under roasting sites – old fencerows, electrical lines, dead trees, etc.

Black cherry, similar to walnut and sugar maple, is a very valuable lumber tree. The lumber is prized for its reddish hue and is used extensively in veneers and furniture. If we were to plant groves of black cherry, walnut and sugar maple on our property we would readily leave over $250,000 (in today's dollars) for harvest by a future generation of Beaver Creekers.

The mature black cherry can be readily identified by its dark scaly bark resembling thick burnt potato chips. Its leaves are long and shiny and a freshly scratched stem gives off an almond-like odour. Black cherry has a life span of some 250 years.

Black cherry is a pioneer species on disturbed ground. It requires full sun so as other Carolinian trees establish themselves in its shade, their shade will eventually out compete black cherry seedlings as these can not develop under shaded conditions.

Butterfly caterpillars thrive on black cherry foliage. Some years trees are defoliated but as long as defoliation doesn't occur for two or three seasons in a row, trees can survive. Generally one heavy caterpillar season results in a huge increase in caterpillar predators ensuring that the trees can recuperate in the next season. This is an example of how ecological diversity ensures that the forest remains a stable system.

Although caterpillars and birds thrive on black cherry, wilted black cherry leaves release cyanide compounds. These compounds can be deadly when consumed in quantity by mammals so astute farmers will remove cherry trees from the fencerows around pastures as cattle, horses, and pigs can succumb to cyanide poisoning.

In an imperialist reversal, black cherry was introduced from North America into central Europe in the mid 20th century. Black cherry is now naturalized in Europe as it escaped from ornamental cultivation and now negatively impacts forest community diversity and regeneration. In North America, a soil-borne pathogen keeps black cherry in check but this pathogen is absent in Europe. If European landscapers had been satisfied with native selections instead of importing species from the colonies, they wouldn't have given the colonies this chance to bite-back.

Traditionally the bark of the wild black cherry was used in syrup to cure chronic dry and prickly coughs. It was a listed remedy in treating asthma and whooping cough. Because of its caustic nature it was also used to relieve indigestion and irritable bowel syndrome.

We should plant a couple of black cherries in the co-op. However, these shouldn't be planted in lawns or adjacent to driveways as the dropping fruit gets very messy in August and September and will stain cars, walkways, and clothes.