Black Cherry (Prunus serotina): Spring's Early Snow White Splendor

by DerdriuMarriner

Prunus serotina, the black cherry trees, bedazzles with the showy white splendor of its early spring flowering.

Prunus serotina is commonly known as black cherry.

A New World native, the black cherry tree is especially valued for its lusciously delicious fruits.

Its snow white flowers are among the first to open in early spring. As such, black cherry trees form a quartet of early spring harbingers with:
• Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis),
• Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), and
• Forsythia.

multi-stemmed, old black cherry tree

Old Loggers Path, Loyalsock State Forest, Lycoming County section, north central Pennsylvania
Old Loggers Path, Loyalsock State Forest, Lycoming County section, north central Pennsylvania

Spring's early flowering tree

 

Prunus serotina, in the family Rosaceae, is known commonly as black cherry, mountain black cherry, rum cherry, or wild black cherry.

 

A black cherry tree in my yard: Beauty follows beauty

Black cherry trees flower early in the spring. In the northern quadrant of my yard a young black cherry tree quietly flourishes a few feet away from two Eastern white pine trees (Pinus strobus). It is a wind-seeded tree, a miracle tree, for the seed traveled from a considerable distance as there are no other black cherry trees in the visible vicinity.

The sapling emerged after Bullseye, the winsome chestnut standard-bred horse who was my devoted neighbor for two halcyon years, mysteriously exited from my neighborhood. That spot was favored by Bullseye for grazing and for whinnying for his treasured peppermint candies. After a year of unremitting wildness, the quadrant was mowed, and in the process the black cherry sapling was discovered at home in the hallowed spot. Beauty follows beauty.

 

Prunus serotina is native to eastern North America. Two subspecies are distinguished by their geographical nativity.

Prunus serotina subspecies serotina ranges in its northern extent from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in eastern Canada into southern Ontario and Quebec.

Prunus serotina slips over the border, where it stretches across the eastern United States to its southern extent from central Florida west to Texas. Black cherry sweeps across the Midwest and dips into the eastern parts of the Great Plains states of Nebraska and Oklahoma. Prunus serotina has a disjunct distribution, also called range fragmentation, in the United States as its primarily eastern to midwestern population is separated from its populations in Arizona and New Mexico.

Prunus serotina subspecies capuli (Cav.) McVaugh references its native distribution in mountainous areas of Guatemala and Mexico.

 

U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zones

With its winter thrivability at temperatures ranging from -40º to -30º F. (-40º to -34º C.) up to 20º to 30º F. (-7º to -1º C.), Prunus serotina is classed in U.S.D.A. Hardiness Zones 3 to 9.

 

spring magic of black cherry trees: snowy white flowers framed with emerald leaves

closeup of Prunus serotina flowers and leaves
closeup of Prunus serotina flowers and leaves

Externals: What black cherry looks like

 

Black cherry flowers, white in color, have five petals and about twenty stamens (Latin: stamen “thread of the warp”), which produce pollen.

Prunus serotina flowers are pedicellate as they develop on pedicels, short stalks that connect flowers to the main stems (peduncles), with flowers opening in succession as they are borne along the growing shoot (peduncle). This type of inflorescence (flower clusters on a shoot), which is reminiscent of grape clusters, is known as raceme (Latin: racemus “bunch of grapes” and Greek: rhag-, rhax “grape”). Racemes exhibit indeterminate growth, meaning that growth, with flower and fruit production, only cease with intervention from an external factor, such as frost.

 

cascades of black cherry fruits

Prunus serotina leaves with fruit
Prunus serotina leaves with fruit

 

With a fleshy exterior encasing its seed, black cherry fruit is classed as a drupe, with one seed per drupe. The fruit ripens to a gorgeous black and has a seductively bitter sweet taste.

 

Recognizing a tree by its bark is an enjoyable gift, for tree bark is a fascinating storyteller, divulging such details as the tree's age and state of health.

Young black cherry tree bark with noticeable lenticels
Young black cherry tree bark with noticeable lenticels

 

Young black cherry trees have smooth bark marked by elongated, horizontal lenticels (Latin: lenticula “lentil”) that resembles sweet birch (Betula lenta) bark.

When scratched, young reddish-brown twigs emit an aroma, and have a taste, redolent of bitter almonds.

As trees mature, their bark, now dark grey to black, separates into distinctive upturned plates with wriggly edges that look like burned corn flakes.

 

Closeup: cornflake appearance of Prunus serotina bark

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) bark detail
Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) bark detail

 

Black cherry leaves are simple, so their oblong-lanceolate outline does  not have the subdivisional shape of oak (Quercus) leaves.

  • Length ranges up to 5 inches (13 centimeters), and width measures up to 2 inches (5 centimeters).
  • Mature leaves have pale green undersides coated with minute hairs and shiny, dark green upper sides.
  • Leaf edges (margins) are serrated, meaning that they resemble a saw with miniature teeth.

Leaf arrangement on the stem, phyllotaxis (Greek: phýllon "leaf" + táxis "arrangement"), is alternate, meaning leaves are attached singly and alternate sides as they emerge along the stem.

 

autumnal glow of black cherry leaves

abscission stage of Prunus serotina life cycle
abscission stage of Prunus serotina life cycle

 

As a deciduous tree, black cherry sheds its leaves seasonally in a process called abscission (Latin: ab “away” + scindere “to cut”). Their autumn color, signalling abscission, commonly changes to orange, red, or yellow.

Prunus serotina ranges in height from about 50 feet (15 meters) to over 80 feet (24 meters) in the Appalachian Mountains.

Its lifespan can extend across two and a half centuries.

 

black cherries galore:

black cherry soda pop scone cupcake, topped with whipped Tofutti cream cheeze frosting spiked with black cherry soda, crowned with black cherry lollipops
Black Cherry Lollipop
Black Cherry Lollipop

Ethnobotany: Human benefits

 

In southern Appalachia young Prunus serotina bark was valued medicinally in cough medicine, sedatives, and tonics.

Black cherry timber, with its alluring redness, is especially valued in cabinetry, furniture, paneling, and toys.

Aromatic, bath, and beauty products, such as candles, lotions, shampoos, and soaps, feature the attractive coloring and alluring fragrance of Prunus serotina fruits.

Prunus serotina fruits are eminently and deliciously edible by humans.

Black cherries are main ingredients in ice cream, jams, and pies, and they flavor soft drinks.

A favorite drink in pioneer Appalachia was cherry bounce, in which rum or brandy was flavored with black cherry fruits. Rum cherry, one of the species’ common names, is derived from this drink.

 

Cheerwine soft drink, mild sweetness laced with distinctive cherry flavor, especially black cherry:

produced since 1917 in Salisbury, west-central North Carolina
Cheerwine: a Southern U.S. specialty
Cheerwine: a Southern U.S. specialty

Spoonbridge and Cherry: 1985-1988 sculpture

Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota

 

The culinary appeal of black cherries is acknowledged in a sculpture, "Spoonbridge and Cherry," in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, an 11-acre garden collaboratively overseen by the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Weighing 7,000 pounds (3175 kilograms), the huge aluminum and stainless steel sculpture comprises a black cherry at the tip of a spoon.

This enormous sculpture was designed by Claes Oldenburg (born January 28, 1929) and his second wife, Coosje van Bruggen (June 6, 1942 – January 10, 2009). Requiring three years for completion, from 1985 to 1988, the two-part sculpture was constructed separately in two New England shipyards. The 5,800 pound (2630.8 kilogram) spoon, designed by Claes, was built in the Merrifield-Roberts shipyard in Bristol, southeastern Rhode Island, while the 1,200 pound (544 kilogram) cherry, designed by Coosje, was fabricated by Paul E. Luke, Inc., East Boothbay, in southern Maine. Paint was supplied by Lippincott, Inc., printers in North Haven, southern Connecticut.

 

yellow seedcoat of linden tree's seeds, model for reshaped pond for "Spoonbridge and Cherry"

Provided by ARS Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory, Washington DC.
Provided by ARS Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory, Washington DC.

 

 

Gigantically stretching, for 52 feet (15.8 meters), over a small pond, the spoon rests its angled neck on a minuscule island of sod near shore.

Originally circular, the pond was reshaped, in accordance with Coosje's inspiration, to convey the outline of the seeds of nearby linden trees (Tilia americana).

 

Seeds of linden trees (Tilia americana) inspired the reshaping of the pond for "Spoonbridge and Cherry."

Tilia americana seed inside seedcoat
Tilia americana seed inside seedcoat

quarter note: shape reminiscent of linden tree seed

Crotchet/Quarter note in modern musical symbols
Crotchet/Quarter no...

 

 

Nut-like linden seeds form a lazy L-shape which is reminiscent of an eighth musical note (British: quaver, "sing in trills") with its distinctive stem flag.

 

 

 

The pond, however, avoids the intricacy of the stem flag, thereby resembling a quarter musical note (British: crotchet, from Old French, crochet, "little hook").

 

 

 

In a dramatic arch, the spoon handle splashes between the oval, filled-in note head shape and the straight note stem.

 

quarter note (crotchet): actual shape of pond in "Spoonbridge and Cherry"

quarter note
quarter note

 

This iconic colossus of the Twin Cities further delights with its fountain duet. Water is expelled from both ends of the 12-foot (3.6 meter) stem:

  • as a spray from the top and
  • as a cascade from the base.

Constantly flowing water captures deliciously the shine with which black cherries beckon and entice.

 

Old-growth Prunus serotina: black cherry trees have a lifespan extending over 2.5 centuries.

Barnes Hollow, Susquehannock State Forest, Potter County, Allegheny Plateau region, north central Pennsylvania
Barnes Hollow, Susquehannock State Forest, Potter County, Allegheny Plateau region, north central Pennsylvania

Faunal popularity

  

Seeds and seedlings are consumed by white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), hare (genus Lepus), and rabbits (family Leporidae) as well as by meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus).

 

Prunus serotina seeds

Provided by ARS Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory, Baltimore MD.
Provided by ARS Systematic Botany and...

 

Black cherry leaves, especially in wiltage, may be fatally toxic to domestic livestock as cyanogenic glycosides in the foliage are converted by stressors, such as consumption, into hydrogen cyanide (HCN).

Unwilted foliage is easily consumed by deer without adverse effect.

Black cherry leaves are not toxic to Eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum), which satiate themselves often to the point of tree defoliation.

Other caterpillars feasting on the leaves include:

  • Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus),
  • painted lady (genus Vanessa),
  • red spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis), and
  • Viceroy (Limenitis archippus).

Prunus serotina bark is favored by porcupines (New World family Erethizontidae).

Black cherry fruit is enjoyed by many small to large mammals, including:

  • black bears (Ursus americanus),
  • opossums (family Didelphidae), and
  • raccoons (Procyon lotor).

The fruit appeals to many birds, such as:

  • Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis),
  • blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata),
  • Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis),
  • Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), and
  • brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum).

 

Prunus serotina bark is favored by North American porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum)

Quabbin Reservoir, near Athol, north central Massachusetts
Quabbin Reservoir, near Athol, north central Massachusetts

Prunus serotina: a pleasure to behold

 

Prunus serotina is one of the first North American trees introduced into Europe from the New World. According to genetic research, Prunus serotina transports across the Atlantic were culled primarily from areas east of the Appalachian Mountains and especially from the Allegheny Plateau, which traverses western and central New York, eastern Ohio, northern and western Pennsylvania, and northern and western West Virginia. Prunus serotina was first planted in the Old World as an ornamental and subsequently as forestial.

Wherever Prunus serotina grows, natively, naturalized, or virtually, its inherent attractiveness and its beneficence to nature, including humans, enhance its habitats. From the adornment of its snow white splendor in early spring to its food offerings as a living organism to humans and to an array of other entities in nature, black cherry trees lead a generous existence. Their grace often lives after them, as well, in their transformation into splendid cabinetry and furniture, among other reincarnations. Prunus serotina is, indeed, a pleasure to behold.

 

aromatic soy candle in a vintage Taylor Smith Taylor teacup: sweet fragrance of black cherries

black cherry vintage teacup candle
black cherry vintage teacup candle

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.

 

shaggy or woolly chanterelle (Gomphus floccosus):

thriving in its symbiotic (Greek: σύν "together" + βίωσις "living"), or ectomycorrhizal, relationship with a black cherry tree
Prunus serotina synecology
Prunus serotina synecology

Sources Consulted

 

“Black Cherry Prunus serotina.” Island Creek Elementary School > Study of Northern Virginia Ecology. Fairfax County Public Schools, Fairfax County, Virginia. Web. www.fcps.edu

  • Available at: http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/black_cherry.htm

Engberg, Siri. "Claes Oldenburg." Walker Art > Collections > Artists. 1998. Walker Art Center. Web. www.walkerart.org

  • Available at: http://www.walkerart.org/collections/artists/claes-oldenburg

Erichsen-Brown, Charlotte. Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes. New York: Dover Publications, 1989.

Hugo, Nancy Ross. Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees. Photography by Robert Llewellyn. Portland and London: Timber Press, 2011.

Jenkins, Janet. "Spoonbridge and Cherry." Walker Art > Collections > Artworks. 1998. Walker Art Center. Web. www.walkerart.org

  • Available at: http://www.walkerart.org/collections/artworks/spoonbridge-and-cherry

Marquis, David A. “Prunus serotina Ehrh., Black Cherry.” Silvics of North America. Volume 2: Hardwoods. Agriculture Handbook 654. Washington, D.C.: U.S.D.A. Forest Service, December 1990.

Morren, Jacques Édouard. "Le Cerasus serotina Loisel ou Putiet noir, arbuste ornemental de pleine terre." La Belgique Horticole, Journal des Jardins et des Vergers, Volume 15: 210-212. Liege: La Direction Generale, 1865.

  • Available via HathiTrust at: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015052482174?urlappend=%3Bseq=276

 

autumn's landscape in Allegheny National Forest at Allegheny Reservoir on Bradford Ranger District, northwestern Pennsylvania:

most black cherry wood for furniture is lumbered from northern Allegheny and Pocono plateaus of Pennsylvania
Allegheny Plateau
Allegheny Plateau
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Fresh pressed juice from whole ripe black (dark sweet) cherries

Lakewood PURE Black Cherry Juice, 32-Ounce Bottles (Pack of 6)

Worlds best Gummies! These bears are fruity, soft, chewy, and bursting with black cherry flavor.

Albanese Black Cherry Gummi Bears, 1.5 LB

Cheerwine: unique soda with cherry (usually black cherry) accents

12 ounce longneck bottle
Cheerwine

Cross-Section of a Black Cherry (Prunus Serotina) Stem, LM X17: photo by Biodisc

Prunus serotina: external as well as internal beauty
Cross-Section of a Two-Year Redwood Stem (Sequoia Sempervirens), LM X12

Black Cherry Harvest (Prunus Serotina), North America: photo by Wally Eberhart

Black Cherry Harvest (Prunus Serotina), North America

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 08/20/2014, DerdriuMarriner
 
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DerdriuMarriner on 06/11/2014

Cazort, Yes, you generally can count on somewhat similar, even uniform vegetation and wildlife for Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Wild black cherry trees are one of my absolute favorite trees precisely for the reasons which you give. Also, I like the way the bark is so attractive, so distinctive, so predictable in its horizontal rings. All the animals seem to feel the same positive way since there's competition for the cherries. Even the fireflies tend to cluster around them, especially at the tops -- if they're males -- like they do with the black walnuts and white pines.

Me too, I appreciate the more flexible harvests and the sour and sweet options in wild cherries. It's as adventurous to gather wild cherries as it is to collect the ground cover (small, sour, but scrumptious) strawberries, which are harvestable from April through October.

cazort on 06/03/2014

I love the wild black cherry trees...I think it is exactly this same species, that grows in my area (Southeast PA and Delaware). I also love that they support the native wildlife, and I like how you highlight examples of this in this page.

As I've grown older I have come to prefer slightly more bitter and less sweet tastes, and I have come to find the fruit of this tree absolutely delightful. They have a richness that the sweet cherries bought at the supermarket lack. I also like that they come ripe rather late in the summer at a time when most other fruit has already passed its season locally. It's rather convenient, as you can plant some of the cultivated cherries, which come ripe earlier, and then enjoy these after the other cherry season has long passed.

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