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Also known as dwarf American cherry or Great Lakes sand cherry, eastern sand cherry is a short, loosely branched deciduous shrub that spreads by rhizomes, flourishing in full sun on dry sites. White flowers with egg-shaped petals and sprays of yellow-tipped stamens appear May-June and are followed by shiny, reddish-purple fruits that mature to nearly black. The fruits are edible, but more highly prized by wildlife than humans. Narrow elipitical leaves are dark green and glossy above with pale undersides; they turn a gorgeous purple-red color in fall.


This species is considered extirpated in Ohio; no natural populations have been documented since 2000. Native habitats include prairies, dunes and shorelines, roadsides, and forest edges.


Use sand cherry in rock gardens, on sunny woodland edges, or as a shrubby groundcover. The extensive root system forms dense colonies and provides excellent stabilization on slopes. Wonderful for providing cover and habitat in an otherwise open meadow or prairie as it won’t grow higher than most perennial prairie species.


The purple-leaved cultivar derives its color from anthocyanins that are feeding deterrents, making it inedible to the 381 species of moth and butterfly larva that rely on native members of the Prunus family as a food source.


Plant Characteristics:

Grows 2-6’ tall. When grown on wind-blown sites such as dunes or slopes, branches tend to stretch out along the ground.


Needs full sun.


Grows best in loamy, dry, sandy, or rocky soils; adapts to other soils with good drainage.


Branches are red and waxy with sprawling and spreading habit. Trunk is multi-stemmed with grayish brown bark and copious lenticels.


Wildlife Value:

Plants in the Prunus genus host 381 species of Lepidoptera, including specialist coral hairstreak butterfly, tuliptree silkmoth, hummingbird clearwing moth, and red-spotted admiral butterfly. Sand cherry flowers attract a wide range of flies and native bees, including bumble bees, miner bees, and sweat bees. The small red or black fruits are a favorite food of more than 40 species of birds, such as bluebirds, cardinals, catbirds, kingbirds, robins, and cedar waxwings. Foxes, coyotes, skunks, and mice also eat the fruits.


Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

From the US Department of Agriculture: The plant (especially the seed and young shoots) contains cyanogenic glycosides, especially amygdalin and prunasin. When injested, these compounds break down in the digestive tract to release cyanide. Used in small quantities in both traditional and conventional medicine, this exceedingly poisonous compound has been shown to stimulate respiration, improve digestion, and promote a sense of well-being. It is also claimed by some to be of benefit in the treatment of cancer - though this claim has been largely refuted. In larger concentrations, however, cyanide can cause gasping, weakness, excitement, pupil dilation, spasms, convulsions, coma and respiratory failure leading to death. The fruits and flowers of most members of this genus generally have low or very low concentrations of this toxin, though the seeds and young shoots can contain much higher levels. The levels of toxin can be detected by the level of bitterness:- for example sweet tasting almond seeds are a major food crop and are often eaten in quantity, whilst bitter tasting almond seeds are used as a flavoring (in marzipan for example) but are not usually eaten on their own. In general, it can be considered safe to eat any fruit or seed from species in this genus that either have a sweet flavor or are slightly bitter. Great caution should be taken, however, if the flavor is moderately to very bitter.


Fruits may be eaten raw, mixed into smoothies, used for preserves or baked goods, or dried for later use. Although the fruit is usually considered safe, use caution if they taste bitter; the leaves and seeds of plants in this genus contain toxic compounds.


The leaves are used to make a green dye.

Cherry, Eastern Sand, Prunus pumila

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