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What is a Black Cherry Tree?

A meadow full of black cherry trees blooming.

I once heard that the easiest way to identify a black cherry tree is not by its incredible smelling and tasting fruit, but by its bark that resembles burnt potato chips (???) This was something rather difficult to believe, and so I had to do the research myself to find out what the deal was!

Closely related to the chokecherry, the black cherry tree has more to it than burnt potato chip bark. Its bark contributes to the making of cough medicine, it is home to many a fine caterpillar, and cherry wood is the top choice for those passionate about cabinetry.

Read 101 Types of Trees to learn about all the gentle giants right in our backyard, or carry on reading to explore the wonders of Prunus serotina.

Prunus Serotina

Otherwise known as a wild black cherry tree, mountain black cherry, or rum cherry, the black cherry tree is a deciduous tree (or sometimes shrub) belonging to the genus prunus. This genus include stone fruits like plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, as well as the almond plant! The black cherry tree is very closely related to the chokecherry tree (Prunus virginiana).

Part of the rosacea family, this pioneer species can be found in open fields with other full sunlight loving species, like black walnut trees, black locust trees, and hackberry trees. What is a pioneer species? A pioneer species is a type of tree that is one of the first to repopulate an area that has experienced a severe natural disturbance, like an avalanche or forest fire. Other pioneer species include birch and aspen trees.

Another interesting tidbit about black cherry trees: when a young twig is either scratched or snapped, it releases a mildly almond-y aroma. This aroma comes from the compound cyanide (a cyanogenic glycoside). Trees will produce this chemical as a means of defense against herbivores who may nibble on their foliage too generously.

This cyanide chemical can actually be to the detriment of some livestock. Since wild black cherry trees commonly grow in open fields, livestock may eat too much of their wilted leaves and become ill, as a cyanide is toxic to most animals.

A close look at a black cherry tree blossom.

What do Black Cherry Trees Look Like?

The black cherry is a medium to large tree, that grows to be around 15-24 meters tall. Black cherry tree bark on a young tree is quite smooth, thin, and banded — quite similar to the bark of a birch tree. The bark will peel away to reveal a more tender inner bark. An old tree will have developed bark that is darkened in color and roughened in texture.

The root system of a black cherry tree is an unusual one, a woody taproot system. They share this type of root system with carrots, where the tree grows from one single root that grows very deep into the soil.

The canopy of a black cherry tree is usually oval in shape, with pendulous and arching branches. This shape of the tree isn’t very well adapted to wind storms, and so black cherry branches are prone to breaking in harsh storms.

A black cherry leaf is around 2-5 inches long and is ovate-lanceolate shaped (very narrow base, ovular body, meeting in a narrow tip). The leaves themselves are very dark green, with an attractive glossy sheen, encompassed by a finely toothed edge. In the fall these leaves change to vibrant yellow and red colors, and they make for excellent shade trees when they’re in full bloom.

A close look at a black cherry tree blossom.

Where do Black Cherry Trees Grow?

The wild cherry tree is widespread throughout north and south America. Most prevalent in the midwest of the United States, it also trails starting from southeastern Canada, journeys southward towards Texas, and even into central Mexico and Guatemala.

The black cherry tree was originally cultivated in central and south America before they were shipped off to Europe. This tree was a very popular ornamental tree in Europe in the mid 20th century and was actually considered an invasive species when it first arrived. Since then, the forest population has harmonized, and the black cherry tree can be found in many central European countries.

What are the Growing Conditions of a Black Cherry Tree?

Based on the regions in which the black cherry tree grows, it may be easy to guess what kind of growing conditions this tree prefers. It is extremely intolerant of salt spray, and for that reason, it will not be found in coastal locations.

Black cherry trees grow most successfully in soils that are moist, well-drained, and have high acidity content. However, they will also grow on more dry sites with alkaline soils as well.

These trees absolutely love full sunlight, and so it isn’t uncommon to find them standing alone in an open field, where there is no other forest canopy competition.

A black cherry tree at the park by the lake.

How do Black Cherry Trees Reproduce?

After the luscious spring foliage has sprouted, small, 5 petalled, white flowers will start to develop in early spring. The flowers grow in racemes that contain clusters of several dozen flowers. These black cherry flowers will then give rise to deeply red berries in the late summer, that are then fed on by a bird, insect, mammal, or human alike.

The germination rates of black cherry trees are rather high, and they are dispersed by other animals. This is the method that trees with delicious trees use to spread their seeds: entice active animals with your fruit, and they will do the rest of the work for you. Ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer, and the eastern tiger swallowtail are some animals that help spread black cherry seeds.

Once birds and mammals eat black cherry fruits, the seeds will then be released in many different areas when the feaster defecates. Many of these seeds will remain in the soil bank for 3 years before they germinate.

A black cherry tree must be over 10 years of age to become sexually mature and will reach its peak seed production period around 30 years. This may be thought of as a late-blooming tree, but considering that there are some black cherry trees that live to be over 250 years old, it’s not too bad. This qualifies black cherries to be in the old-growth category!

A close look at a cluster of ripe berries on a tree.

How are Black Cherry Trees Used?

Black cherry wood is considered to be one of the most valuable types of timber in the lumber industry and is marked simply as “cherry” wood. The wood is well known as being very strong, with beautiful orange coloring and a pleasant aroma. This makes them a rather expensive wood.

The wood of the black cherry tree can also be used as a spice when dried and ground up. This is a common practice in many Mexican cultures. Black cherry fruit has also been an important food source, for those lucky enough to live close to one. There are many ways in which black cherries can be preserved.

Also obtained from black cherry bark, is wild cherry cough syrup. This can be found in many over-the-counter cough syrups, but it’s also been used as traditional medicine as well. Otherwise, black cherries are made into wines, jellies, desserts, and anything else you can imagine a cherry doing well.

A bowl of fresh berries on a wooden table.


Are black cherry tree fruits edible?

They most certainly are. Black cherries are very sweet, tart, deep red in color, and can be used in many different ways.

Are black cherry trees self-pollinating?

Black cherry trees are self-pollinating, but the chances of them being more success will come from an additional pollinator nearby.

Are black cherry trees invasive?

When they were first imported to Europe from central and south America, black cherry trees were considered an invasive species. Luckily since then, those affected areas have harmonized and the black cherry is part of its natural forest ecology.

Can black cherry trees grow in Florida?

Black cherry trees are very intolerant to salt spray, and so they will only be found in central Florida, if at all. They do appreciate lots of sunlight, but many areas of Florida are too hot for black cherry trees to live very long.

Do black cherry trees flower?

Yes, they do! Black cherry trees bloom small, white, 5 petalled flowers before they are replaced by deep red, delicious fruits.

Do black cherry trees have thorns?

Quite unusual for its kind, the black cherry tree does actually have small thorns that grow along its branches. It is one of the only trees in its family that produces thorns.

How do you identify a black cherry tree?

The easiest way to identify a black cherry tree is by its deep green, ovular glossy leaves, or of course by the black cherry fruits that develop in the late summer.

How old do black cherry trees have to be before they develop fruit?

A black cherry tree is considered to be sexually mature by the age of around ten. Their peak seed production period starts around 30 years and will extend until the tree is about 100. There are some black cherry trees that have lived to be over 250 years old!

Why is my black cherry tree dying?

There is a lepidopteran species (moths and butterflies) called the eastern tent caterpillar which considers a black cherry tree to be an ideal home. This is to the detriment of the tree, as tent caterpillars can takeout an entire black cherry grove in one season. It’s very likely that some species of the caterpillar is being too generous with your black cherry foliage.

Is black cherry wood good for firewood?

Like almost all wood, black cherry wood is considered to be good firewood, especially because it smells so good! However, it would be a sincere shame to simply burn cherry wood as it is extremely attractive, and is considered the most valuable type of wood in the lumber industry.

What are the black bugs on my cherry tree?

Chances are that aphids have made a buffet out of your cherry tree. An easy and natural way to try and deal with this unfortunate pest is by introducing ladybugs to your garden! They are a ferocious and efficient predator to the pesky aphid.

How much is a black cherry tree worth?

The purchase of a black cherry seedling can get to be rather expensive, as a 5-inch seedling can go for about $15!

Is black cherry a hardwood?

Cherry wood is extremely hardwood and is one of the most valuable timbers in the lumber industry.

What’s the difference between cherry and black cherry?

Black cherries tend to be sweeter, smaller, and have a more intense flavor than regular cherries do. They are more similar to the pin cherry than the regular cherry.

Do black cherries taste good?

Black cherries are very delicious fruits. This sweet cherry is tart and can be eaten raw or cooked. They are often made into desserts, wines, jams, and jellies.

How can you tell if the wood is cherry?

The easiest way to tell if the wood is cherry wood is by its almond-y smell, and it’s orange huge. The wood is also tightly grained, heavy, and quite hard.

Why do my black cherries have powdery mildew on the surface?

There’s a good chance that your black cherry tree has been subjected to the fungus podosphaera clandestina. The powdery mildew is due to its spores covering the fruit. Luckily, this issue can be dealt with rather easily by spraying the fruits with a mixture of water and potassium bicarbonate.