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.