Prunus serotina, an American wild cherry
The United States has fourteen species of wild cherries and all of them are important food sources for wildlife. The authors of American Wildlife and Plants mention the following as widespread species of particular importance:
- the eastern and western chokecherries (Prunus virginianaa)
- the bitter cherry of the western states (Prunus emarginata)
- the pin cherries of the northern states (Prunus pennsylvanica)
- the black cherry of the eastern states (Prunus serotina)
The black cherry (Prunus serotina) is the largest of the American wild cherries, and also the largest member of the rose family in North America. It is a native tree to every state east of the High Plains. Here in Kentucky, it can probably be found in every county.
In the primeval forests, black cherries grew 100 feet tall with long straight trunks, reaching for sunshine in competition with other trees. Large black cherry trees are rarely found today, but they were once prized for their wood which was used as a substitute for mahogany in furniture making and home construction.
Often nowadays, black cherry is seen along country roads where it springs up from the droppings of birds perched on the fence wires. In such open conditions, its height is typically 30 to 50 feet, and it has a short trunk. Its spread may be half its height; it's not a wide tree.
Farmers sometimes eradicate black cherries from pastures because wilted leaves contain hydrocyanic acid (cyanide) which may be fatal to livestock if consumed in quantity. I can imagine this problem happening particularly when the livestock lack adequate forage. Farmers should remove fallen leaves or fence out cherry trees so livestock aren't grazing beneath them. An annual mowing would keep down any seedlings that sprout.
Wild cherries were used in the pemmican of the Plains Indians. Native Americans made teas and other concoctions from cherry bark and leaves to treat various conditions, including childbirth pain, coughs, bleeding, diarrhea, lung problems, and nervous conditions. I remember Smith Bros. Wild Cherry Cough Drops from my childhood. I suppose that recipe drew upon folk-medicine uses of wild cherry.
In the backyard, a black cherry tree is a nature-lover's delight. When the clusters of black fruit are on the tree (and on the ground under the tree,) it will be visited by a large variety of songbirds, gamebirds. small mammals, and possibly even foxes, beavers, raccoons, possums, deer, elk, moose, bears, or mountain sheep (depending on where you live, of course!) If you want to make cherry jelly or wine, you'll have to compete with the wildlife for the fruit.
Prunus serotina is called "intolerant" in Enjoying Our Trees, a publication of the the American Forestry Association. It will not grow in the shade of other trees. If it is to grow with other trees, an opening must be created for the little black cherry so it receives enough sunshine. It also does not tolerate poor drainage; though it enjoys moisture, standing in water or growing in a permanently saturated soil will injure or even kill it. It will not do well in compacted soil, either.
According to Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America, black cherries are resistant to wind and ice damage, and they will tolerate occasional dry spells. The tree grows fairly quickly. In good conditions, you can expect it to gain at least two feet in height most years, sometimes more. Prunus serotina usually lives well over a century, perhaps even 175 years.
If you can't find a black cherry at a garden center or mail-order nursery, you can plant your own with seeds collected from the wild. (Birds do this all the time!) Plant them 1/4 inch deep in the fall in the site where you want the tree to grow. When the seedlings come up, select the best one and pull out the others.
I've mentioned some books in this article. You can find their bibliographical info at the bottom of this column.