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Prunus serotina is our largest native cherry tree, towering up to 100′ tall in the right conditions. Not closely related to most of the more familiar cultivated food and ornamental cherries, Wild Black Cherry flowers in the spring in elongated plumes or racemes of small white flowers. These develop into drooping clusters of small red cherries that darken to purple-black in late summer. Although the young wood bears the characteristic somewhat thin, smooth, and horizontally banded cherry bark, the mature bark is rough and flaky, the limbs prone to damage and breakage. Living up to around 250 years in ideal conditions, Prunus serotina often declines past around 100 years when growing in mixed hardwood forests when taller trees such as maples and poplars overtake it and shade it out, according to the US Forest Service.
Wild Black Cherry grows quickly as a pioneer species. But though it can easily be grown to a tree 50′-80′ tall, it likewise “can be pruned and kept at shrub size by cutting them to the ground every 2-3 years.” (NC State Extension) This, obviously, makes harvesting the fruit much easier. It also circumvents the tree’s tendency to limb damage, as well as somewhat containing the plant’s tendency to shed leaves, twigs, and fruits, all of which can inhibit the growth of other garden plants due to allelopathy. Hard pruning might make it more suited to smaller spaces, but most gardeners will be happier growing Wild Black Cherry in naturalized gardens or on the edge of wild areas.
For best productivity and form, full sun or bright partial shade are needed. Although seedlings will sprout in the deep shade of a mature forest floor, unless they reach a sun gap, they will usually die within five or six years. Flowering often occurs within the first five years, and fruit production begins at around ten years, reaching greatest abundance from 30-100 years of age. Some trees never produce high amounts of fruit. See more at US Forest Service.
Prunus serotina occurs in local variations (ecotypes) which are widely adapted to most soil types and moisture conditions within their local ecoregions. For this reason, it is best to plant local ecotypes for optimal performance.
A Keystone Species
Prunus serotina is an important pioneer species. The Prunus genus (its North American native representatives, as this is a genus with worldwide distribution) is ranked by Dr. Doug Tallamy as the second most important keystone species for Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) larvae in Eastern North America. Dr. Tallamy’s research has identified both Lepidoptera (caterpillars) and the plants which host them as cornerstones of healthy ecosystems because of their wide participation in the food webs. In this research, caterpillars are posited as an important first step in converting the sun’s light into protein. All herbivores do this, but caterpillars go on to feed vast scores of birds, wasps, mammals, and other wildlife. Adult Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) often live out their adult lives as pollinators, providing additional input into the ecosystem.
Beyond its leaves, Wild Black Cherry feeds so many species with its fruits: songbirds, wild turkey, quail, squirrel, deer, bear, mice, moles, and other wildlife (US Forest Service). Its flowers provide nectar and pollen for native bees and other pollinators including flies and beetles. And both its fruits and wood have provided for humans for millennia. It is truly a Giving Tree.
Like all cherries, agricultural or wild, all parts of the plant except for the fruit are poisonous to humans, and indeed, the leaves can kill livestock who graze on them. Cherry pits are toxic, but fortunately these usually pass through the digestive system whole without doing harm. Still, eating crushed cherry pits can kill an adult as they contain cyanide. Remember Darlene on Ozark? Odd how little we usually worry about this!
Prunus serotina fruits are too bitter to eat fresh, but can be used to make jellies, jams, wines, and to flavor rum and brandy. (US Forest Service, North Carolina State Extension). Medicinal properties have been ascribed to the inner bark. (Missouri Botanical Garden, US Forest Service).
The wood is valued in cabinetry and woodworking for its hardness, fine grain, and reddish-brown color.