Black Cherry


Discovering Black Cherry

Last November I was strolling around in a local hospital lobby when I noticed a chart showing common local poisonous plants.  Among them were several of my favorites, notably black cherry (Prunus serotina).

The leaves and stems contain a cyanogenic glycoside which can be fatal if consumed.  Though some sources claim medicinal qualities, I don’t recommend cherry tea in large quantities. I teach my students to identify black cherry by the fetid almond-like odor of the twigs.  I get a kick out of watching their noses wrinkle.

The fruits on the other hand are flavorful, though small and slightly astringent.  These drupes make terrific jams and jellies if you can beat the birds to them.  Most likely you will have trouble.

According to the chart I mentioned earlier these fruits are poisonous.  This is misleading as only the seed inside the pit contains cyanide producing compounds found in the leaves and stems.  The fruit is totally safe.  Simply discard the pits.  Combine the juice with apple for beautiful tasty jelly.

How and where do you find black cherry?  It is common throughout the eastern states to the Great Plains.  It is one of the first to leaf out in the spring.  The alternate leaves are roughly oval with a toothed edge.  They also have two small glands at the base of the leaf blade.

Twigs are covered with white dots called lenticels.  Elongated flower clusters bloom in spring and the fruits ripen from a dark red to nearly black.  When the tree matures the bark breaks out into flint-like platy scales with upturned edges.

Black cherry is a valuable timber producer.  For this reason alone it should be encouraged.  Fruits also provide wildlife food.  According to some sources young saplings can be poisonous to browsing livestock.  I question this as they are an important food source to deer and rabbits and I’ve never heard concrete documentation of cherry poisoning.

A less-common species with quality fruit is the choke cherry, (Prunus virginiana).  It lacks timber value and is often considered a woodland weed.  The fruits have a great cherry flavor, but are much sourer than black cherries.  Again, be sure to discard the pits.

Should you try to cultivate either of these two species or another more northern adapted one called the pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) you will encounter a problem called black knot.  This fungus disease causes stem cankers that look something like dried up animal droppings.  They don’t affect fruit quality, but they depress yields and look unsightly.

Eastern tent caterpillars are another problem.  These furry voracious creatures can strip all foliage from an average sized cherry tree in a matter of days.  Their droppings along with those from birds can litter cars, walks, picnic tables and anything else that might be beneath them.

Several effective insecticides control them, however.  If your eyes are keen you can destroy nests before they pose a problem.  Don’t let the downside discourage you.  Wild cherries are tasty and healthy if properly collected and consumed.  This is another bright colored fruit high in antioxidants.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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