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What Is a Black Cherry?

By C. Ausbrooks
Updated Feb 27, 2024
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Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is a plant species that belongs to the family Rosaceae, and the genus Prunus. It is commonly referred to as wild black cherry, rum cherry, or mountain black cherry. The plant is native to the eastern half of North America, and can be found growing in the Midwest United States, and in the mountains of Guatemala and Mexico. It has also been naturalized in parts of Europe, after escaping from cultivation as an ornamental tree.

A deciduous tree, black cherry can grow 50-100 feet (15-30 m) tall. The diameter of the tree’s trunk can reach 28-48 inches (70-120 cm). The leaves on the tree feature a simple, serrated margin and can grow 2.5-5.5 inches (6-14 cm) long. Tree flowers are small, white, and fragrant. They have five white petals, and about 20 stamens.

The fruit of the black cherry tree is small, round, and dark red to black in color. The cherries begin green to red, and finally ripen to black in the final stages of ripening. They are somewhat bitter when eaten fresh, but also slightly sweet. The fruits are commonly eaten by birds and other wildlife.

Black cherry is easily distinguished in a wilderness setting by its unique bark. A mature tree has thick, black, hairy, and very broken bark. For the first ten years or so of the tree’s life, however, it resembles thin, striped birch bark. This cherry tree can also be identified by the almond-like odor that emanates from a broken branch or twig, and its long, shiny leaves.

It has a long lifespan, with the oldest known specimen living 258 years. However, it is susceptible to damage from storms, as its branches are easily broken. It is also prone to infestation by caterpillars of the order Lepidoptera. The Eastern tent caterpillar has been known to destroy entire groves of the tree.

The fruit from the black cherry tree has many culinary uses, including making jams, jellies, pies, soda, ice cream, and even liqueur. The tree’s timber is commonly used for cabinet making in the United States. It is falsely sold as “cherry” wood, and is notorious for its high price and deep, red color.

The tree’s foliage contains harmful components, in particular cyanogenic glycosides, which are stronger when the leaves have wilted. These glycosides are converted to hydrogen cyanide when eaten by animals. Farmers must often remove these cherry trees from their grazing lands to prevent the poisoning of livestock. The flesh of black cherries, however, is safe for consumption by humans and animals.

Many people harvest the wild fruit to use on their own. Caution should be used when gathering from the black cherry tree, as the poisonous Buckthorn is similar in appearance. The two can be differentiated by buckthorn fruit’s many seeds, while the cherry fruit has only a single pit.

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Discussion Comments

By julies — On Jul 11, 2011

Another benefit I remember reading about black cherries, is that they contain melatonin and have helped people who have trouble sleeping.

I can relate to this, because it seems like there are many nights that I have trouble sleeping and that as you age, your body is lacking in melatonin. I think trying some black cherry drink before bedtime would certainly be worth a try to see if that would help.

By bagley79 — On Jul 11, 2011

I have always enjoyed the flavor of black cherry. I remember when I was a kid, this was my favorite kind of soda pop. I don't see it very often as pop, but have seen some black cherry juice drinks that I have tried and like very well.

There are also many health benefits associated with black cherry juice. Many people have been able to get some relief from arthritis pain when drinking this juice. If I can have something that tastes so good and be good for me, that makes it even better.

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