Trees of the Adirondack Park: Black Cherry on the Jenkins Mountain Trail (17 May 2015)

Trees of the Adirondacks:
Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)

Trees of the Adirondacks: Black Cherry leaves are elliptical and finely toothed. Black Cherry on the Jenkins Mountain Trail (17 May 2015) Trees of the Adirondacks: Black Cherry leaves are elliptical and finely toothed. Black Cherry on the Jenkins Mountain Trail (17 May 2015)

The Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is a deciduous tree that grows throughout New York State and the Adirondack Mountains. The largest and most important of the native cherries and the only one of commercial value, the Black Cherry is found throughout the eastern United States. It is a member of the rose family. The common name – Black Cherry – is from the black color of the ripe fruits. The tree is also known as Wild Cherry, Mountain Black Cherry, and Rum Cherry; the latter name is a reference to a time when Appalachian pioneers flavored their rum or brandy with the fruit to make a drink called cherry bounce.

Trees of the Adirondacks: Black Cherry on the Jenkins Mountain Trail (17 May 2015) 
Trees of the Adirondacks: In the spring, Black Cherry leaves have a pair of brightly-colored stipules (outgrowths on either side of the leaf stalk). Black Cherry on the Jenkins Mountain Trail (17 May 2015)

Identification of the Black Cherry: The leaves of the Black Cherry are oblong, with a long pointed tip and a tapering base. The leaves, like the branches, are alternate: they emerge from the stem one at a time. The edges of each leaf are finely toothed; the tiny teeth curve inward. In the spring, the leaves have a pair of brightly-colored stipules (outgrowths on either side of the leaf stalk). Black Cherry leaves are shiny and dark green on the upper surface, light green below. The emerging leaves of the Black Cherry are often reddish. In fall, the leaves turn yellow to orange, then to red late in the season.

Black Cherries flower in late spring, after the leaves emerge. The insect-pollinated flowers are small (3/8") and white, arranged in terminal spikes about five inches long. The edible fruit, which ripens in July and August in the Adirondack Mountains, occurs in dropping clusters. Each fruit is about 1/2" in diameter, with a single round seed. The green cherries turn dark red, then purple-black at maturity during the fall. Black Cherry bark is reddish-brown and smooth when young, with conspicuous, horizontal lines. The bark becomes dark gray and scaly on older trees.

 Adirodack Trees: Black Cherry bark is reddish brown and smooth when young, becoming dark gray and scaly on older trees. Black Cherry on the Heron Marsh Trail (17 May 2015)
Trees of the Adirondacks: Black Cherry bark is reddish brown and smooth when young, becoming dark gray and scaly on older trees. Black Cherry on the Heron Marsh Trail (17 May 2015)

Keys to identifying the Black Cherry and differentiating it from other deciduous trees include its leaves, bark, and growth habit.

Uses of the Black Cherry: The hard, reddish wood of the Black Cherry is highly valued for furniture. It works well and takes polish well. The wood is also used for paneling, professional and scientific instruments, handles, and toys. The fruit is used for making jelly and wine and can also be used as a seasoning. However, any bitter fruit can be toxic and should not be eaten. Moreover, the twigs and leaves of the Black Cherry contain high levels of hydrocyanic or prussic acid; the foliage is toxic to both humans and livestock. The seeds as well contain high quantities of hydrogen cyanide and should not be eaten.

The Black Cherry was used by various native American tribes to treat a variety of ailments, including coughs, colds, ulcers, fevers, measles, and burns. The Cherokee, for instance, reportedly created a decoction of inner bark which was used for laryngitis. The Chippewa applied a poultice of the inner bark to cuts and wounds. The Delaware are said to have made a cough syrup from the fruit. Black Cherry is little, if at all, used in modern herbalism.

Birds of the Adirondack Mountains: Cedar Waxwing at the Paul Smiths VIC (17 June 2015) 
Cedar Waxwings are among the estimated seventy bird species which consume Black Cherry fruit. Birds have been known to become intoxicated on slightly fermented cherries. Cedar Waxwing at the VIC (17 June 2015).

Wildlife Value of the Black Cherry: Wild cherries, including the Black Cherry, are among the most important wildlife food plants. Red Foxes, Eastern Chipmunks, Cottontails, White-footed Mice, and red, gray and fox squirrels forage on fallen cherries, while Black Bears and raccoons climb Black Cherry trees for the fruits. During winter, voles feed on the bark at snow level. White-tailed Deer and Moose, which are not sensitive to the toxins, browse on the twigs and foliage in the fall and winter. These animals spread the seeds to new areas. 

Many insects use the Black Cherry as a source of food, particularly the leaves. The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract honeybees and bumblebees. The Black Cherry is a caterpillar host of many butterflies and moths, including Small-eyed Sphinx, New England Buckmoth, Canadian Tiger Swallowtail, Scalloped Sallow, and Dowdy Pinion.

Black Cherries are part of the deciduous forest that provides the breeding range for many bird species, including Hooded Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Wild Turkey, and Northern Saw-whet Owl. Fruits from Black Cherry trees make up part of the diet of many birds, including: Wood Duck, Northern Flicker, Wood Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, and American Crow.

Distribution of the Black Cherry: Black Cherry grows in eastern North America from western Minnesota south to eastern Texas, and eastward to the Atlantic from central Florida to Nova Scotia. Black Cherry is a shade-intolerant species that usually occurs as scattered individuals in various types of mesic woods and second-growth hardwood forests, as well as in old fields and along fence rows. In the Adirondacks of upstate New York, Black Cherries are rather uncommon in the mountainous portions of the high peak region, but can be seen in late successional forests at lower elevations.

Black Cherry at the Paul Smiths VIC: Black Cherries at the VIC do not grow in stands, but as individual trees in deciduous or mixed forest. Look for a very large Black Cherry tree on the west side of the Heron Marsh Trail, near signpost #14, between the board walk and the floating bridge. There are also a few Black Cherries on the Jenkins Mountain Trail, between the intersection with the Barnum Brook Trail and the intersection with the Heron Marsh Trail. Look for a Black Cherry tree on the Barnum Brook Trail, just after the fish barrier dam when walking in a clockwise direction.

References

Trees of the Adirondack Mountains



Explore the VIC

The Paul Smiths VIC offers a wide variety of programs throughout the year to educate and inform Adirondack Park residents and visitors about the natural wonders of the Adirondack Mountains. You can help support these programs by joining the Friends of the VIC. More information on Friends of the VIC memberships

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The VIC trails are free and open to the public, from dawn to dusk, spring through fall. In winter, the trails are open to cross-country skiers and snowshoers for a fee. Day or season passes may be purchased.