The black cherry (Prunus serotina), also known as the wild black cherry, is the largest (50-80 ft.) and most important of the native cherries. It’s also the largest member of the rose family! It is very widespread in the woods in this area as well as all of north eastern North America and has an extremely high food value for nature.
The list of pollinators that visit its clusters of white flowers in the spring is extensive and includes bumblebees, honeybees, and many types of flies. Its nectar is an important food source for these insects. Pollinators don’t visit a flower for its pollen, they are after the nectar and serve as pollinators in the process. The nectar also attracts ants which help protect the leaves from some leaf chewing insects.
In the fall when the cherries are ripe they are a good food source for migratory birds including robins and bluebirds, game birds, songbirds and numerous mammals. It is said to be the black bear’s favorite food. If these aren’t enough “gifts of nature” from one tree, the leaves provide food for a number of butterfly, moth and insect larva. The native black cherry is like a super market for nature all in one tree!
There are many other uses for the native black cherry. Its wood is quite beautiful and valuable. Because this tree grows tall and straight, is very strong and has beautiful graining. It’s used for furniture, paneling, flooring and many other items. There are also numerous medicinal uses for the black cherry, most notably as an ingredient in cough syrup. I remember taking Smith Brothers Wild Cherry Cough Drops and Syrup as a child. The cherries are quite small .38 of an inch and mostly pit. They are edible and often used to make jams and wines. However, because of their size it’s a major chore to separate the fruit from the pit. They have been described as more tart and acidic tasting than the much larger cherries we are used to eating. The pits however are about the same size. This gives you an idea of how little actual fruit is on the wild black cherry. Birds and animals swallow the whole fruit, pit and all. Then the pit (seed) is dispersed which helps spread the trees.
Wild black cherry prefers full sun and often is the tallest tree in their section of the forest rising above the canopy to reach the sun. It can tolerate some shade, but not much. It will grow in neutral to acidic soil with a pH from 6.8 – 7.2 and is not fussy about moisture level. It does have a few issues including being the favorite food of the eastern tent caterpillar and bothered by black knot fungus. One of the interesting ways to identify a wild black cherry is that the mature bark looks like burnt potato chips.
Many people don’t prefer the wild cherry as a landscape tree as it is considered a “messy” tree. Its cherries are numerous and the ones that aren’t eaten by the birds drop on the ground to feed small mammals. We have a few black cherries along the walkway from the driveway to the house and in fall when the fruits are all over the path stones you have to be careful to wipe your feet before coming into the house as the cherry juice stains. However, in its natural range it is one of the best native trees in our area and I would not remove them. A little mess for a short time in the fall is worth providing food and shelter for so many creatures.