Among the most valuable of our native trees for humans and wildlife, Prunus serotina takes its Latin name “serotine,” meaning “late,” from its habit of flowering and fruiting later than other cherry species. A plant host to an incredible number of lepidoptera, including two Prunus butterfly specialists: the coral hairstreak and the recently described cherry gall azure butterflies (both pictured here, more info below). This tree has 4-season beauty—snowy blossoms in April-May, red fruits in summer that ripen to black as foliage glows red/orange/purple/copper for fall, and distinctive, almost-black, flaky bark. Aside from its beauty, wild cherry provides food, medicine, and timber. One of the largest cherry trees, sometimes reaching heights of 100 feet, but may also be kept shrub sized by cutting to the ground every two to three years. (This also keeps caterpillars in viewing range.)
Native habitats include moist or dry woods, disturbed areas, roadsides, old fields, and stream banks. Plant it on the edges of woods or in pollinator, edible, butterfly, and native gardens.
Typically grows 50-80’ tall and 30-60’ wide.
Tolerates part shade, but fruits and flowers best in full sun.
Prefers moist, fertile loam but adapts to most well-drained soils. Does poorly in very wet or very dry conditions.
Oblong leaves are shiny and green with a long, pointed tip.
A single trunk grows to about two feet in diameter. Immature bark is gray with horizontal lenticels. Mature trees display dark, flaky-patterned bark.
Wild black cherry hosts 381 species of lepidoptera in central Ohio, including two butterfly specialists: coral hairstreak, and cherry gall azure butterflies (both pictured here). Cherry gall azure butterfly caterpillars feed on the tiny mite galls that cover black cherry leaves. To find their caterpillar, look for leaves that have galls on their surface, and then look for ants - the caterpillars attract the ants to act as their bodyguards by secreting a sugary nectar that the ants will dine on and defend. Interestingly, this tree also secretes nectar from glands on its stems called nectaries, to attract ants that control leaf-eating caterpillar populations.
Flower nectar and pollen are highly important for honey bees, mining and other native bees, and several species of flies. The fruits are consumed by at least 33 species of birds, including thrushes, woodpeckers, bluebirds, tanagers, orioles, and cedar waxwings. Many mammals, such as foxes, squirrels, and chipmunks, also consume the fruits.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
A decoction of the inner bark has been in use by Native Americans for centuries to treat colds, fever and as a general pain relief. Black cherry cough syrup and lozenges derived from the inner bark are commonly available today.
Cherries are tart and often used to make jelly, wine, pie and other baked goods. Leaves are toxic, as are the seeds, but only if chewed. (Quite difficult, that, as they are large and quite woody).
Black cherry wood is valued as furniture because of its dark red tint and luster.
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