Fit for man and beast: Black cherry tree has multiple uses for both humans and wildlife

  • Black cherry fruit matures in late summer, changing from light orange to dark purple. Wildlife relishes the sweet fruit.

    Black cherry fruit matures in late summer, changing from light orange to dark purple. Wildlife relishes the sweet fruit. Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

 
Updated 9/17/2020 6:51 AM

Black cherry is a venerable species often overlooked in our woods and gardens.

Black cherry trees don't reach the dimensions of walnut trees, nor do they have the longevity of oaks. What they lack in stature, though, they make up for in benefits to wildlife and humans alike.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Black cherry, or Prunus serotina trees, are distinctive, with horizontal stripes on dark, flaky bark.
Black cherry, or Prunus serotina trees, are distinctive, with horizontal stripes on dark, flaky bark. - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

An amazing array of animals rely on the black cherry. Doug Tallamy, entomologist and author of "Bringing Nature Home," found that more than 400 species of native butterfly and moth caterpillars eat black cherry leaves.

Among these, Tallamy noted, are "10 species of giant silk moths, such as the cecropia moth, Polyphemus moth, imperial moth and io moth [and] 5 species of butterflies, such as the tiger swallowtail and the red-spotted purple."

If there are so many caterpillars eating cherry leaves, why aren't the trees denuded?

It just so happens that an equally impressive number of birds eat these caterpillars. The caterpillars provide high-calorie meals for nestlings, fledglings, and adult birds in the summer.

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Black cherry blossom time is in early summer here in Illinois. The beautiful flowers are fragrant and attract many pollinating insects.
Black cherry blossom time is in early summer here in Illinois. The beautiful flowers are fragrant and attract many pollinating insects. - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

Black cherry flowers, borne high in the trees in June, are a big hit with pollinators.

At least 14 species of native bees draw nectar from black cherry blossoms. Nonnative honeybees frequent the nutritious flowers as well.

By mid-August, juicy, sweet fruit appears. Black cherry fruit has the same design as the store-bought Bing cherry, but it's much smaller and deep, dark purple.

A fleshy outer part surrounds a hard, inedible pit (seed) in the middle. Lots of birds and mammals devour the fruit. The shortlist of birds with an appetite for wild cherries includes Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes, veeries, cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, and Eastern bluebirds.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

If you like to birdwatch in your yard, be sure to have a black cherry tree nearby.

Birds and mammals swallow the fruit whole, and the pits come out the other end. Thus, not only do wildlife benefit from the sustenance, but the tree also makes out well in this arrangement.

The animals distribute the seeds far and wide. There tend to be a lot of young black cherry trees under telephone wires!

By September, most black cherry leaves have been munched on by insects. The ripe fruit is a deep purple color, measuring about a half an inch in diameter.
By September, most black cherry leaves have been munched on by insects. The ripe fruit is a deep purple color, measuring about a half an inch in diameter. - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

In addition to its ecological value, black cherry is important medicinally and commercially. Cherokee, Chippewa, and Iroquois all used decoctions of cherry bark as cough medicine.

Over the years, folk medicine incorporated many traditional uses of the bark, roots and leaves. Today, extracts of the bark are still used in cough syrup. Chances are, you've had cherry cough syrup at some point in your life.

An oft-cited story about black cherry comes from the days of the Appalachian pioneers.

Mountain men would gather lots of the small, ripe cherries to make a libation known as "Cherry Bounce."

This cordial was essentially cherry juice infused in brandy or rum.

No doubt too much of this would make you bounce off the trees -- and regret it the next morning!

A favorite of woodworkers, black cherry wood makes beautiful cabinetry, furniture and musical instruments. These wood spoons were made from black cherry in Tennessee.
A favorite of woodworkers, black cherry wood makes beautiful cabinetry, furniture and musical instruments. These wood spoons were made from black cherry in Tennessee. - Courtesy of Valerie Blaine

Any aficionado of American antiques will extol the virtues of black cherry. Some of the finest antique furniture and cabinetry comes from cherry lumber.

In the old days, Pullman train cars, wooden streetcars, and carriages were made of cherry.

Today, the wood is still a favorite among woodworkers for tables, desks, chairs, and musical instruments.

Donald Culross Peattie, author of "A Natural History of Trees," wrote of another use of fine cherry wood: caskets. "Daniel Boone made himself several cherry caskets, and used occasionally to sleep in them in his old age, but gave up all but his last to needy corpses."

It's a challenge to find large black cherry trees for dimensional timber in our area. The greatest stands of this hardwood grow -- or used to grow -- in the rich forests of Appalachia.

The tall, straight specimens were logged out in the 19th century.

Sustainable forestry practices today allow for cultivation of hardwoods with an eye for the sawmill AND regeneration for the future.

Whether your interest is wildlife, pharmaceuticals, or furniture, you'll find lots to love about the beautiful black cherry tree. Go easy on those cherry bounces, though -- or get a designated driver!

• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist in Kane County. She welcomes your comments and suggestions. You may reach her at natvblaine@gmail.com.

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