Black cherry

Prunus serotina
Family: Rosaceae

Natural Historyblack cherry
Leaves and fruit of black cherry
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida

The black cherry is the largest native cherry and the only one of commercial value. Rarely offered in nursery catalogs, the black cherry is more of a "keep what you already have" tree when it comes to landscaping. Its beautiful, fragrant flower show, attraction to songbirds and fall color make it a highly desirable shade tree. It is also known as wild black cherry, rum cherry, and mountain black cherry.

Black cherry is a potentially hazardous tree. The autumn twigs and leaves are potentially fatal and if eaten, the hydrocyanic acid contained in the reddish plant tissue and inner bark can be a poisonous toxin. When combined with stomach acid, a deadly poison called cyanide is released and can be lethal. Horse and cattle owners should take measures to ensure the safety of their animals.

Habitat & Range

Black cherry grows in hardwood hammocks and open areas throughout eastern North America, often found along roadways, fences, old fields, and pastures. It ranges from southern Canada to central Florida and as far west as North Dakota and eastern Texas. It is less common from southern New Mexico and western Arizona southward to Guatemala. It is shrubby at the northern limits of its range. The black cherry is most common on deep, rich, moist soils in mixed stands with oaks, ashes, hickories, and yellow-poplar.  It is less common on sandy soils.

Wildlife Use

The fruit of the black cherry is an important food source for a variety of songbirds, upland game birds, and animals. However, since the black cherry is one of the latest tree species to bloom, the fruit do not ripen until mid to late summer.

Human Use

Black cherry's edible, bitter fruit is used in wine making as well as to flavor brandies, liqueurs, jellies, or preserves. The reddish-brown color of black cherry heartwood resembles mahogany wood and its hard, close-grained characteristics make beautiful furniture, trim, tool handles, veneers, and cabinets. The hardwood is also used in the production of boats and printing blocks. The inner bark contains extracts used for Wild Cherry cough syrup.


Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: The black cherry is a medium-sized tree, 50 to 60 feet in height, 2 to 3 feet in diameter. It has small, somewhat horizontal branches and a narrow, oblong crown. The root system is wide-spreading.
Leaves: Leaves are simple, alternate, and deciduous. The leaves are 2 to 6 inches long, 1 to 2 inches wide, oval to elliptical in shape. The leaf base is acute and the leaf tip is acuminate. Leaf margins are finely serrate. Leaf surfaces are lustrous dark green above, paler below with rusty-red pubescent on the bottom third of the midrib. Petioles are slender, up to 1 inch long, grooved, and sometimes twisted..
Twigs: The twigs are slender, rigid, aromatic, at first coated with a waxy layer, becoming red-brown and glabrous. The pith is homogeneous.
Bark: The bark can be seen in three different forms as trees mature. When young, the bark is thin, smooth, red-brown or black, and has elongated silvery horizontal slits (lenticels). As it ages, the bark becomes furrowed and the slits remain visible. On mature trees the bark is black, thick, and roughly furrowed like alligator skin.
Flowers: The five-petaled white flowers are perfect, in many-flowered clusters of around 40 on each raceme.
Fruit: Fruit is a lustrous, black or purplish-black, edible drupe, with juicy, purplish flesh, ½ inch in diameter. The pit is 1/3 inch long with a prominent ridge.
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:
  • Carolina willow also has simple, alternate leaves with finely serrated margins, but the leaves are much more narrow.



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