Black Cherry – Prunus serotina

Black Cherry – Prunus serotina
Family Rosaceae – Rose Family; Fruit Trees

Black cherry is the largest and most widespread of all cherry trees native to North America.

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Japanese Bird Cherry flower raceme

Black cherry, the largest of the native cherries and the only one of commercial value, is found throughout the Eastern United States. It is also known as wild black cherry, rum cherry, and mountain black cherry. Large, high-quality trees suited for furniture wood or veneer are found in large numbers in a more restricted commercial range on the Allegheny Plateau of Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia. Smaller quantities of high-quality trees grow in scattered locations along the southern Appalachian Mountains and the upland areas of the Gulf Coastal Plain. Elsewhere, black cherry is often a small, poorly formed tree of relatively low commercial value, but important to wildlife for its fruit [1].

Black cherry and its varieties grow under a wide range of climatic conditions, and it tolerates a wide variety of soils, providing the summer months are cool and moist. In Canada, black cherry grows at sea level, while in the Appalachians it grows at 5,000 feet or more. It is thought black cherry will move its range northward and upward in response to man-made global warming.

Black Cherry

Flowering and Fruiting- Unlike domestic cherries, which flower before the leaves appear, black cherry flowers late in relation to leaf development. At the latitude of 41° to 42° N. in Pennsylvania and New York, black cherry flowers usually appear around May 15 to May 20. At that time, the leaves are nearly full-grown though still reddish in color. Flower development in other parts of the range varies with climate-from the end of March in Texas to the first week of June in Quebec, Canada.

Black Cherry Tree
Black cherry flowering on May 26th, 2008, near Chicago

Black cherry flowers are insect pollinated. Flies, beetles, and bees are among those so occupied [1]. Late spring frosts may damage the flowers before they open, and frosts occasionally cause large numbers of newly set fruits to fall from the pedicels without maturing. Premature dropping of green fruits is also a problem in some years. The fruit is a one-seeded drupe about 10 min (0.38 in) in diameter with a bony stone or pit. The fruit is black when ripe.

The bulk of the seed crop falls to the ground in the vicinity of the parent tree. Circles of advance seedlings beneath scattered cherry trees and an absence of seedlings elsewhere are common occurrences in closed stands. As a result, the amount of black cherry advance reproduction is highly dependent on the number and distribution of seed-producing trees in the overstory. Songbirds distribute modest quantities of seeds in their droppings or by regurgitation. Omnivorous mammals, such as foxes and bears also distribute seeds in their droppings. Bird and mammal distribution often accounts for a surprising abundance of advance cherry seedlings in stands lacking cherry seed producers [1].

Tent caterpillars
Cherry is often infested with tent caterpillars in springtime.
Tent Caterpillar Tent
This tent was found on wild plum, Prunus americana

Black cherries are an important source of food for many birds, squirrel, deer, turkey, mice and moles, and other wildlife. Leaves, twigs, and bark of black cherry contain cyanide in bound form, as the cyanogenic glycoside prunasin. During foliage wilting, cyanide is released and domestic livestock that eat wilted foliage may get sick or die. Deer eat unwilted foliage without harm.

The bark has medicinal properties. In the southern Appalachians, bark is stripped from young black cherries for use in cough medicines, tonics, and sedatives. The fruit is used for making jelly and wine. Appalachian pioneers sometimes flavored their rum or brandy with the fruit to make a drink called cherry bounce. To this, the species owes one of its common names, rum cherry [1].

Black Cherry Bark
Black cherry bark has medicinal properties


  1. U.S. Forest Service. David A. Marquis, Prunus serotina Ehrh. Black Cherry
  2. NATIONAL AUDUBON SOCIETY, National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees
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Family Rosaceae – Rose Family; Fruit Trees
Containing Hawthorns, Apples, Pears, Cherries, Plums, Peach, Almond, Mountain-Ash and Whitebeam. Rosaceae is a large family of plants with about 3,000 species in ~100 genera. Crabapple and other fruit trees provide some of our most outstanding flowering ornamentals. Tree Encyclopedia | Tree Index | Rosaceae Index