Wild Black Cherry

Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
This lovely black cherry stands next to a home on Mansfield Street. The wood is rich and reddish-brown, highly valued for use as hardwood in North America. This species is bittersweet, in more ways than one: the tree's fruits are edible and can be eaten raw—they are used to flavor rum and brandy ("cherry bounce"), as well as to make jellies and wine—but the roots, bark, leaves, and twigs can be highly toxic to wildlife, due to the presence of cyanogenic compounds. The tree has been introduced to Europe, where it was once prized for its handsome blooms and foliage, though the tree's trunk is not especially showy. The species has succeeded as an invasive species in England and continental Europe — far outside its natural range, in Southeastern Canada and the the Eastern States. In English, the tree has known many different names: Wild cherry, black cherry, mountain black cherry, and rum cherry.
Ivanna Soto-Medrano and Emily Xiao
Collected Data
Date of tree entry: 
10.40 m
Diameter at breast height: 
0.39 m

The bark of a young wild cherry tree is a smooth, medium brown, with horizontal lenticles (raised pores in the stem of a woody plant), but grows rougher and darker as the tree matures. This tree is mature, as noted by the bark's reddish brown, rough, and lightly upturned plates.
Twigs & branches
The twigs of Prunus serotina are reddish-brown in color and thin, with terminal end buds that have glossy reddish and greenish scales. The buds are small (1/5 inch) and can be either glabrous (smooth) or hairy. The twigs may also be covered in a gray epidermis (coating), and possess a bitter almond odor (due to cyanogenic compounds that prevent herbivory). The branches of the wild cherry tree are slender and long; low branches may droop and touch the ground, but most of the canopy does not droop.
The leaves of the wild cherry tree are approximately 6" long by 2" inches wide, have an ovate shape, and are oriented alternatively along the branches of the tree. The veins of the leaves are pinnate and curve horizontally outward to the edge of the leaf from the midrib (the central vein, vertically of the leaf). The edges of the leaf are slightly ridged, and the foliage an emerald green in color. When wilted, the leaves can be poisonous.
Reproductive Structures
Wild cherry flowers appear in dense clusters at the ends of the slender branches of the trees. The buds appear on a raceme of about 4"-6" long, and are small, round, and alternatively arranged. Once flowered, the flowers appear as small, about ½" across, and consist of 5 white obovately shaped petals, 5 green sepals, 15-22 stamens, and a central pistil with a flattened stigma on each individual flower. The blooming season for wild cherry flowers range from 2-3 weeks, from late spring to early summer.
After blooming, each flower is replaced by a small, round, fleshy drupe that is green at immaturity, but darkens to dark red, and eventually purple-black when ripe. The cherries reach maturity in early fall. Each mature cherry is smooth and round, with a slightly bitter, acidic taste. They are commonly used for flavoring rum and jellies, and are harmless to humans. Animals frequently eat the plants and spread the seeds.
  • Winter (photograph by Ivanna Soto-Medrano and Emily Xiao)
  • Early spring (photograph by Emily Xiao)
  • Summer (Creative Commons - photograph by Nicholas A. Tonelli, via Flickr)
  • Autumn (Creative Commons - photograph by Nicholas A. Tonelli, via Flickr)
Natural range of distribution: 
Prunus serotina's wide natural range spans from Southeastern Canada to Texas, with a disjunct (genetically related but geographically separated) population in central Texas and mountain ranges in the Southwestern United States. There are additional disjunct populations to the South, in Mexico and Guatemala. The tree was introduced to Europe as early as the 17th century, for use in English country gardens, and became highly invasive in contental Europe as well. The ideal conditions for Black Cherry growth vary by regional populations, but all varieties are fast-growing pioneers that prefer well-drained soils.
Origin, history, and uses: 

Prunus serotina grows abundantly in North America. The species was introduced from America to England in the seventeenth century, where the tree was prized among gardeners for its attractive fall foliage, lace-like blossoms, and fruit. The cherries, which taste bittersweet, may be eaten raw and can been used in jellies/jams and also as a flavor extract in syrups, though commercial cultivation of black cherry is not highly common. Native Americans consumed the fruit of Prunus serotina raw and also in breads and cakes (as the Iroquois did). The medicinal uses of Prunus serotina were well-known among Native American populations. For instance, the Chippewa used the twigs to make a beverage, and the Potawatomi used the fruit to make spirits. The tree’s inner bark, when dried, could be made into a tea that alleviated the symptoms of colds, fevers, diarrhea, labor pains. The root could also be used to treat intestinal worms, burns, cold sores, and certain skin conditions. The fruit is used today often in rum, whiskey, and brandy drinks. 

The leaves of Prunus serotina turn to yellow and rose in the fall, with the decline in temperatures. The species blooms from April to May, with white flowers in thin, dangling clusters, in late spring. The flowers are followed by clusters of dark cherries, which ripen in the late summer. The bark, roots, and leaves of Prunus serotina contain cyanogenic compounds that can be toxic to wildlife and lend the bark a bitter almond aroma.

“Black Cherry,” Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. American Indian Health and Diet Project (Accessed April 20, 2017).

“Black cherry.” Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, Virginia Tech. http://dendro.cnre.vt.edu/dendrology/syllabus/factsheet.cfm?ID=66 (Accessed April 20, 2017). 

“Black Cherry.” PLANTS Database, National Resources Conservation Service. United States Department of Agriculture. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_prse2.pdf (accessed March 12, 2017).

“Black Cherry - Prunus serotina - Overview.” Encyclopedia of Life. http://eol.org/pages/791911/overview (Accessed 16 April, 2017).

“Prunus serotina.” Flora of North America. http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=242417060 (accessed April 20, 2017).

“Prunus serotina.” Nature’s Notebook. USA National Phenology Network. https://usanpn.org/nn/Prunus_serotina (accessed March 12, 2017).

“Prunus serotina.” Plant Database, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=prse2 (accessed April 20, 2017).

“Prunus serotina,” Plant Finder, Missouri Botanical Garden. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.as…(Accessed April 20, 2017).

“Prunus serotina: Black Cherry.” University of Florida IFAS Extension. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/ST/ST51600.pdf (accessed April 20, 2017).

Media and Arts

Wild Cherry

By Peter Balakian, in Poetry Magazine (Nov. 1994)

How I wore the bark

of the first limb thin,

and pushed my arms

between the tight spaces

fingering the twigs for grip,

forcing my head through

a crown of leaves. 

When I wrapped myself

around the last sturdy branch

half-way up, 

my hands were streaked with juice

deep red

and the sap on my palms

was catching bark.

I sat on that branch

(no larger than its three spare feet)

feeling how thin the world

above me was—

then hugged the trunk

and like a gray worm 

inched along the bark

to where branches

rubbery like vine

were breathing in my ear,

and the leaves slighter 

than my fingers

stroked my face.

This high up

what could I hug?

The berries small and dry

and twigs paling red

beyond my arms

were all that stood between me

and the empty blue.

When I dropped my leg—

everyone shouting below

got lost in haze.

My fingers full of leaves

were numb.

Bark falling from my skin

disappeared into dust,

and knots were circles

whirling far away.

One last time

I stretched;

my head light and whirring

like a bluebird’s wing

light around the branches


drying all the black-red

juice, the berry-skin

that clung to me. 

Old Lady to King Henry VIII, in Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII:

Ay, ay, my liege;

And of a lovely boy: the God of heaven

Both now and ever bless her! ‘tis a girl,

Promises boys hereafter. Sir, your queen

Desires your visitation, and to be

Acquainted with this stranger ‘tis as like you

As cherry is to cherry.


Leanoard Holmesworthe, in Shakespeare’s Garden, writes that Shakespeare is probably making reference to the cherries cultivated in English gardens (which were often individuals of Prunus serotina).

“Wild Cherry Tree”

1901, oil on canvas, by the American impressionist John Henry Twachtman (1853–1902)

The painting resides at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in Buffalo, NY.