Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Permaculture Plants: Black Cherry Tree

Good things come in small packages!

Common Name: Black Cherry, Wild Cherry, Mountain Cherry, Rum Cherry
Scientific Name: Prunus serotina
Family: Rosaceae (Rose Family)

The Black Cherry Tree is a tree native to eastern and southern North America and is most widely known as a timber tree with its hard, strong, close-grained wood.  However, it is commonly used for for the flavor of its small (less than 1 cm), dark purple-black berries produced on long, fragrant racemes (a shoot with dozens of flowers) that will then develop dozens of fruit.  The trees have characteristic bark, smooth and horizontally striped when young and fissured and scaly when over ten years of age.

When I lived in Kentucky, we lived on the edge of a farm field.  The edge was full of Black Walnut and Black Cherry Trees.  One summer I went out and collected a few pounds of black cherries and made black cherry jam.  I had never made preserves of any sort, and in fact this was one of my first activities in the realm of "homesteading".  The jam turned out great, and I have been a huge fan of Black Cherry Trees ever since.
Illustration of the Black Cherry by Charles Sprague Sargent

Almost ignored by cultivators of fruit trees, the Black Cherry Tree has minimal written history.  It was used by Native Americans as a food source (a key ingredient in pemmican, a mixture of dried fruit, fat, and meat, and eaten on trips and in winter) and as a medicinal plant used to treat a number of respiratory and gastrointestinal issues.  The short storage and absence of super sweet flesh of the fresh fruit, combined with the poisonous seeds and leaves, have likely been to blame for this tree being largely overlooked by plant developers.


  • The oldest documented Black Cherry tree is in the U.S. and was 258 years old.
  • Black Cherry Trees are host to a large variety of caterpillars.
  • It has been very invasive in Europe where it was used as an ornamental and unique fruit tree.
  • Cherry Bounce is a liqueur of cherries steeped in brandy, rum, or whiskey, and it was a popular drink in the Colonial United States.  In fact, we still have a recipe from Martha Washington, the first First Lady:  “Extract the Juice of 20 pounds of well ripend Morrella Cherrys Add to this 10 quarts of Old French brandy and sweeten it with White Sugar to your taste—To 5 Gallons of this mixture add one ounce of Spice Such as Cinnamon, Cloves and Nutmegs of each an Equal quantity Slightly bruis’d and a pint and half of Cherry kernels that have been gently broken in a mortar—After the liquor has fermented let it Stand Close-Stoped for a month or Six weeks—then bottle it remembering to put a lump of Loaf Sugar into each bottle.”

Making some modern-day Cherry Bounce - they are cheating and using store bought cherries!

Primary Uses:
  • Timber, especially fine woodworking, furniture, and cabinetry
  • Fresh fruit - rarely!  Typically the fruit is bitter and astringent (very "dry" in flavor) but can have a bit of sweetness to it
  • Jams
  • Pies
  • Liqueurs and Wines
  • Flavoring for rum, brandy, or whiskey to make "cherry bounce"
  • Flavoring for sodas and ice creams 

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Food source for birds and mammals
  • Fuel (firewood)
  • Smoking wood (for flavor of smoked foods)
  • Can be coppiced
  • In the Appalachians, the bark was used as a cough remedy and sedative

Yield: Good crops occur every 1-5 years.  No definitive quantities are defined.
Harvesting: Late summer/early autumn (June-October)
Storage: Fresh berries do not last long.  Ideally use within a day or two after harvesting

The beautiful and fragrant racemes covered with dozens of flowers.

The leaves of the black cherry tree are glossy and lightly toothed.

USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-9
Chill Requirement: Required, but the number of hours is not documented (or easily found!)

Plant Type: Medium to Large Tree
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Tree
Cultivars/Varieties: Minimally improved; few cultivars available

Pollination: Self-Pollinating/Self-Fertile
Flowering: Late spring/early summer (May-July depending on where it is planted

Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 10 years,
Years to Maximum Bearing: 30+ years, but decent crops can be had on 10 year old trees
Years of Useful Life: 100+ years, but some individuals can live to over twice that age

Characteristic horizontal stripes of young Black Cherry Trees

The older, more scaly bark of a mature Black Cherry Tree

Size: 50-100 feet (15-30 meters) tall and half as wide
Roots: Shallow and spreading
Growth Rate: Fast

Beautiful orange and yellow of Black Cherry leaves in autumn.

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates very light shade if at all
Moisture: Medium
pH: acidic to neutral soil (4.0 - 7.5)

Special Considerations for Growing: 
Although minimal scientific studies, Black Cherry likely tolerates juglone (natural growth inhibitor produced by Black Walnut and its relatives) as it is often seen growing in close proximity.  Consider using this tree as a buffer between your walnuts and other plantings.

Propagation:  By seed.  Requires cold stratification for 3-4 months.  Can be propagated by cuttings.


  • Poisonous – Leaves and seeds contain a precursor to cyanide (large amounts need to be eaten for this to be toxic).
  • Can spread rather easily by seeds.  Seeds can live for 1-3 years before germinating waiting for optimal conditions.
  • Black Cherry Trees are a natural host for the Eastern Tent Caterpillar and Cherry Scallop Shell Moth which can defoliate trees quickly.  This can be deadly for young trees, but is usually rarely significant with established, older trees.
  • The fungal disease "black knot" is common, but not significantly harmful on established trees 
  • Can be susceptible to wind damage, especially with its shallow roots

Chromolithograph of Cerasus serotina (older scientific name for Black Cherry, Prunus serotina) by F. de Tollenaere & P. Vervoort in Jacques douard Morren, ed.


  1. I would suggest looking at Samuel Thayer's Foragers Harvest. He's got a great recipie for making cherry leather - pits and all, based on the way the Native Americans did.

  2. I have not read this book so I don't know what the author has written, but I believe I have flipped through this book in the past - the cover looks very familiar. The pits of Black Cherries contain a compound that the body can convert to cyanide - a poison. I do not know for sure that cooking completely destroys this toxin. I can see from the Index on that Black Cherries are mentioned in the Pin Cherry chapter. They are a separate species, but I still think most of these closely related species have the toxin in the pits and leaves.

    I love the idea of Cherry Leather though. However, I may go to the extra effort to avoid the pits.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Nice blog. You people can also take help from other natural herbs and stuffs to keep yourself healthy and fit and avoid the chances of having any side effect, you can also take help from the Pure Goji Berry Juice to maintain good health for long without any worry.

  4. Thanks for sharing this amount of detailed information about the black cherry plant. It is a multipurpose plant that has many health benefits.

  5. Thanks for great info on the black cherry tree. Someone identified this tree in our backyard for us last year, but it never produced fruit (had been there for at least 20+ years - before we bought the house). Two neighboring, large oak trees died and were removed several years ago, though, and the extra sunlight really allowed it to flourish. This year, we have our first bumper-crop of fruit, and the birds love it! Making jam sounds interesting, but the thought of removing a thousand tiny pits has dampened my enthusiasm :(

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