Cherry, Black

Name:  Cherry, Black

Botanical Name: Prunus serotina

Form: tree

Parts Used: berries

 

Citation: Guenther, K. (2017, January 12) Black cherry as wildlife food [Web log post.] Retrieved: readers supply the date, from http://wildfoods4wildlife.com

Black cherries picked first 2 weeks of August.

Getting Started

Black cherry fruit can make a case for being a premier native wildlife fruit in the eastern U.S., it ranks #2 on our Favorite Fruits List! Your biggest obstacle to harvesting cherries is going to be finding low hanging fruit.  Because the tree is tall, most of the fruit is waaaayyy up there. The second challenge is getting to the fruit before the birds do. But when you find some reachable branches, know that you are picking a fruit that is bound to be a super big hit with your rehab audience! But there are concerns to be mindful of with cherry, so read on to make sure you understand the cyanide risk implications of this wonderful native food.

Rosaceae (Rose Family)

Amygdaloideae (Almond Sub-family)

Prunus (Cherry and Plum Genus)

Common name Virginia Prunus Species Origins Rare Plant Status
allegheny plum P. alleghaniensis native Globally appears secure, but vulnerable in Virginia
american wild plum P. americana native rare in some states (not Virginia)
chicksaw plum P. angustifolia native rare in some states (not Virginia)
sweet plum P. avium non-native not rare
Carolina laurel cherry P. caroliniana native not rare,
cherry plum P. cerasifera non-native not rare
sour cherry P. cerasus non-native not rare
damson plum P. domesica non-native not rare
hortulan plum P. hortulana native not rare
mahaleb cherry P. mahaleb non-native not rare
beach plum P. maritima native rare in some states (not Virginia)
wild goose plum P. munsoniana native not rare
Canada plum P. nigra native rare in some states (not Virginia)
pin cherry P. pensylvanica native rare in some states (not Virginia)
peach P. persica non-native not rare
black cherry P. serotina native not rare
spring cherry P. subhirtella non-native not rare
susquehanna sand cherry P. susquehanae native Globally appears secure, but critically imperiled in Virginia.
choke cherry P. virginiana native rare in some states (not Virginia)
Distribution of <i>Prunus serotina</i> Ehrh.
Range map: USDA, NRCS. (2015). The PLANTS Database, National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA. Retrieved on a variety of dates from 2015-2017 from http://plants.usda.gov

Key Features to Look For

In addition to the identification guide of your choice, here are a couple of features you should see on this tree:

  • Dark purple/black fruits
  • Bark of mature trees has a “potato chip” or “burnt corn chip” texture
  • Small dots on surface of the twigs. These are pores called lenticels that allow for exchange of gases with the air
  • Alternate, pointed leaves with fine teeth
  • Berries form on drooping, downward hanging clusters (racemes)
  • Cherries mature from red to dark black purple when ripe
  • Scratched twigs may smell like almond or maraschino cherries
Notice the dots on a cherry twig? These are lenticels, one way the tree exchanges gases with the atmosphere–tree-breathing.

Risks

You may have heard of a danger associated with “stone fruits” which means a fruit that has a single hard seed or “stone” inside a fleshy fruit. For our cultivated fruits, a lot of the “stone fruits” are in the cherry family, so “stone fruit” helps people remember  the cherry family members. (But there are a number of wild fruits with single seeds that are not in the cherry family, such as hackberry, greenbrier or dogwood. So this has limited utility in helping us in the wild.) But for those “stone fruits” like apricots, chokecherry, plum, peaches—and yes, cherries— they have chemicals amygdalin and prunasin that combined with certain enzymes turn into hydrogen cyanide (HCN) which is a potent poison. (Cherry is in the Amygdaloideae sub-family taxonomically. Elpel, 2013) The almond scent some people can smell that is associated with scratched or broken cherry twigs is the amygdalin or cyanide, but not everyone can smell this chemical.

A good number of wild mammals eat cherry browse. How can they do this without killing themselves? I honestly cannot say exactly. We know that animals have mechanisms to detox a small quantity of cyanide (Stoltenow & Hardy, 2012). What I do understand is that if an animal eats cherry that has already been damaged– through the process of wilting, chopping or other mechanical damage– the cyanide has had more time to be created and the browse has increased toxicity to a potentially lethal level. The cyanide risk in damaged or wilting leaves continues over time until the leaf is crispy dry and brown. Also, trees stressed by drought have even more cyanide production concentrated in the leaves. Cattle, horses and other livestock have died from eating wilted cherry, like when a storm brings a branch down and it has time to start to wilt before the animals find it. Ruminants– like deer– are the most susceptible to cyanide poisoning which has something to do with the pH of their rumens, but all animals are susceptible.

Seeds, too, can contain the cyanide compounds. But for the cyanide to affect an animal, the seeds sometimes need to be chewed or eaten in super high quantities. The pulp of fruits is not believed to produce cyanide. Most birds and many mammals eat the fruits whole, so the pit just passes through the digestive track without being chewed and thus releasing cyanide. You may have seen bear or raccoon scat full of whole, intact cherry seeds. But even without mastication of the seeds, I would be cautious. Large quantities of cherries have caused cyanide poisoning in animals (Canadian Biodiversity Information System).

Whoever ate these cherries obviously did not grind up the seeds, so they passed whole through the digestive system to be found by me on the road! I believe these were from a nearby domestic cherry.

There are two Prunus trees that are particularly high cyanide producers that should be avoided for wildlife use.  One is on the Pacific coast, Prunus laurocerasus referred to as cherry laurel or English laurel. It is a non-native ornamental tree.

In the southeast is Prunus caroliniana, Carolina cherry laurel (or Carolina laurelcherry). This is an evergreen shrubby tree that is native but has also been cultivated with many varieties used in the landscaping business, because it is known to be deer resistant.  To to play it safe, you may want to avoid harvesting fruits from this particular cherry.  Carolina cherry laurel can be distinguished from black cherry easily in two ways. One, the leaf of black cherry is definitely finely serrated (saw-toothed) while Carolina cherry laurel’s leaf is mostly entire (smooth edge) with only occasional or few teeth. Plus it is evergreen. Black cherry drops its leaves.

Here, I have written about the 3 Stop Signs of Cherry to help foragers from inadvertently harvesting cherry browse. But Carolina laurel cherry  and Sandcherry defy this simplified mantra because the leaves are barely serrated enough to call them that. If these trees are in your area, take time to learn to recognize them. They are cherry oddballs.

Because all Prunus browse is so dangerous, I have removed it from the database. Read more about cyanide poisoning here.

Flower Description:  Clusters of white flowers, cluster almost 6” (15 cm) long when leaves are still young and new, each flower has 5 petals and long stamens.

Black Cherry, May 5.

 

May 10.

 

Leaf  Description: Dark green and, almond-shaped and shiny, very fine teeth, very pointed tip, brown fuzz on back midrib.

Black cherry leaf, alternate on branch, very fine serrations on leaf edge.

 Bark/ Twig Description: Mature black cherry also has a distinctive bark that helps with identification. Some people refer to it as “potato chip” bark—or “burnt cornflake” bark. The bark breaks into blocky ovals and they seem to curl up at the edges. Underneath where they curl up is relatively dark—hence the “burnt” description. Younger bark has light colored dots, dashes or lines horizontally that are the lenticel “pores” where the tree “breathes” typical of cherries and some other trees.

See how the edge of the bark plates curl up a bit, giving the bark a “potato chip” effect?
Mature black cherry bark.
This domestic cherry shows a typical young bark and twig pattern of light horizontal dash marks–the lenticels–that most cherry species display.
Even older bark of this unidentified cherry shows the horizontal lenticel lines.

Seed/ Fruit Size:  Round, 5/16 inch (7-8 mm), deep purple/black, fruits hang in clusters. Large single light color seed within.

Fruit just ripening on this back cherry, which is on a north slope and a little later than it’s neighbors to ripen.

 

Harvest

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
winter winter late winter early spring spring late spring early summer summer late summer early fall fall late fall
fruit x x x

Does this lend itself as a good enrichment item?  No. Again, cherry leaves give of cyanide as they wilt. So you never want to offer pruned branches to any animal.

Harvesting Fruit:  Handpick fruits directly off the branches you can reach once the fruit has matured to dark purple—almost black. Unripe fruits are green or red.

How to Store Prepared Fruit: Commercial berry containers are great for storing fruit because the rigid plastic keeps fruit from getting crushed and they also have small holes in them which control the humidity in the container. This slows the fruit from drying out too quickly, but allows air circulation to reduce molding.

Cherries keep well in the refrigerator for one to two weeks.

It is ideal to use this fruit fresh, so if at all possible, use them fresh. Frozen fruits just come out dark and mushy, but if you really need to freeze them you can, knowing that the texture will be greatly compromised upon thawing. Nutrients will be preserved. Spread berries in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place in freezer for 1 day. Once frozen, repackage them into zipping freezer baggies (3 mils or thicker) or glass jars to keep them from drying out, remove as much air as possible from the baggie, label and store in freezer until needed—no more than 1 year. Avoid freezing, thawing and refreezing as might happen in a door of a freezer.

See more detailed instructions under the tab  “Harvest, Process and Storage.”

Other Species

Because the blooms on cherry trees are so gorgeous and the make great pollinator plants, there are legions of domestic cherry varieties used in the landscaping business. These fruits can be used as well in wildlife rehabilitation just like our native black cherry.

Below are some pictures of domestic cherries I have encountered.

A domestic variety of cherry.
Another domestic.

Rare Species in Virginia

Do you live in one of these Virginia counties? If so, be aware that there are some species near you that may be threatened or endangered. Do more research to make sure you are identifying your target species correctly and not harvesting a threatened species!

County in Virginia Species
Amherst allegheny plum
Augusta allegheny plum
Augusta susquehanna sand cherry
Botetourt allegheny plum
Culpepper allegheny plum
Culpepper susquehanna sand cherry
Fairfax susquehanna sand cherry
Franklin allegheny plum
Giles allegheny plum
Montgomery allegheny plum
Pulaski allegheny plum
Roanoke allegheny plum
Rockbridge allegheny plum
Rockingham allegheny plum
Warren allegheny plum

Feed Cherry Fruits to:

cherry, black

(Prunus serotina)

fruit

Caution: Prunus spp. leaves, twigs and seeds are extreme high-risk for cyanide poisoning for all animals. Fruit pulp is considered safe, but large quantities of seed in fruit can be toxic. (Canadian Biodiversity Info System)

Bear, American Black

Ursus americanus

strong preference

Cottontail, Eastern

Sylvilagus floridanus

Fox, Red

Vulpes vulpes

Bluebird, Eastern

Sialia sialis

Cardinal, Northern

Cardinalis cardinalis

Catbird, Gray

Demetella carolinensis

Crow, American

Corvus brachyrhynchos

Flycatcher, Great-crested

Myiarchus crinitus

Bobwhite, Northern

Colinus virginianus

cherry, pin

(Prunus pensylvanica)

fruit

Caution: Prunus spp. leaves, twigs and seeds are extreme high-risk for cyanide poisoning for all animals. Fruit pulp is considered safe, but large quantities of seed in fruit can be toxic. (Canadian Biodiversity Info System)

Bear, American Black

Ursus americanus

Raccoon, Northern

Procyon lotor

Bluebird, Eastern

Sialia sialis

Robin, American

Turdus migratorius

Grouse, Ruffed

Bonasa umbellus

cherry, wild

(Prunus spp.)

fruit

Caution: Prunus spp. leaves, twigs and seeds are extreme high-risk for cyanide poisoning for all animals. Fruit pulp is considered safe, but large quantities of seed in fruit can be toxic. (Canadian Biodiversity Info System)

Bear, American Black

Ursus americanus

strong preference

Chipmunk, Eastern

Tamias striatus

Cottontail, Eastern

Sylvilagus floridanus

Fisher

Martes pennanti

Fox, Eastern Gray

Urocyon cinereoargenteus

Fox, Red

Vulpes vulpes

Hare, Snowshoe

Lepus americanus

Mouse, Common White-footed

Peromyscus leucopus

Mouse, Deer

Peromyscus maniculatus nubiterre

Opossum, Virginia

Didelphis virginiana

Raccoon, Northern

Procyon lotor

Skunk, Spotted

Spilogale putorius

Skunk, Striped

Mephitis mephitis

Squirrel, American Red

Tamiasciurus hudsonicus

Squirrel, Eastern Fox

Sciurus niger

Squirrel, Eastern Gray

Sciurus carolinensis

Vole

various spp.

Vole, Meadow

Microtus pennsylvanicus

Woodrat, Allegheny

Neotoma magister

Catbird, Gray

Demetella carolinensis

strong preference

Flicker, Northern

Colaptes auratus

strong preference

Grosbeak, Evening

Coccothraustes vespertinus

strong preference

Grosbeak, Rose-breasted

Pheucticus ludovicianus

strong preference

Robin, American

Turdus migratorius

strong preference

Starling, European

Sturnus vulgaris

strong preference

Tanager, Summer

Piranga rubra

strong preference

Thrasher, Brown

Toxostoma rufum

strong preference

Thrush, Bicknell's

Catharus bicknelli

strong preference

Thrush, Gray-cheeked

Catharus minimus

strong preference

Thrush, Swainson's

Catharus ustulatus

strong preference

Waxwing, Cedar

Bombycilla cedrorum

strong preference

Woodpecker, Red-headed

Melanerpes erythrocephalus

strong preference

Blackbird, Red-winged

Agelaius phoeniceus

Bluebird, Eastern

Sialia sialis

Cardinal, Northern

Cardinalis cardinalis

Cowbird, Brown-headed

Molothrus ater

Crow, American

Corvus brachyrhynchos

Finch, Purple

Carpodacus purpureus

Flycatcher, Great-crested

Myiarchus crinitus

Flycatcher, Great-crested

Myiarchus crinitus

Goldfinch, American

Carduelis tristis

Grackle, Common

Quiscalus quiscula

Grosbeak, Blue

Guiraca caerulea

Jay, Blue

Cyanocitta cristata

Junco, Dark-eyed

Junco hyemalis

Kingbird, Eastern

Tyrannus tyrannus

Meadowlark, Eastern

Sturnella magna

Mockingbird, Northern

Mimus polyglottos

Oriole, Eastern

Icterus galbula

Oriole, Orchard

Icterus spurius

Phoebe, Eastern

Sayornis phoebe

Sapsucker, Yellow-bellied

Sphyrapicus varius

Sparrow, Chipping

Spizella passerina

Sparrow, House

Passer domesticus

Sparrow, Song

Melospiza melodia

Sparrow, White-crowned

Zonotrichia leucophrys

Sparrow, White-throated

Zonotrichia albicollis

Tanager, Scarlet

Piranga olivacea

Thrush, Hermit

Catharus guttatus

Thrush, Wood

Hylocichla mustelina

Titmouse, Tufted

Baeolophus bicolor

Towhee, Eastern

Pipilo erythrophthalmus

Veery

Catharus fuscescens

Vireo, Red-eyed

Vireo olivaceus

Vireo, Warbling

Vireo gilvus

Vireo, White-eyed

Vireo griseus

Woodpecker, Downy

Picoides pubescens

Woodpecker, Hairy

Picoides villosus

Woodpecker, Pileated

Dryocopus pileatus

Woodpecker, Red-bellied

Melanerpes carolinus

Bobwhite, Northern

Colinus virginianus

Grouse, Ruffed

Bonasa umbellus

Grouse, Sharp-tailed

Tympanuchus phasianellus

Pheasant, Ring-necked

Phasianus colchicus

Turkey, Wild

Meleagris gallopavo

Turtle, Eastern Box

Terrapene carolina

chokecherry

(Prunus virginiana)

fruit

Caution: Prunus spp. leaves, twigs and seeds are extreme high-risk for cyanide poisoning for all animals. Fruit pulp is considered safe, but large quantities of seed in fruit can be toxic. (Canadian Biodiversity Info System)

Cottontail, Eastern

Sylvilagus floridanus

Fox, Red

Vulpes vulpes

Flycatcher, Great-crested

Myiarchus crinitus

Woodpecker, Pileated

Dryocopus pileatus

plum, American

(Prunus americana)

fruit

Caution: Prunus spp. leaves, twigs and seeds are extreme high-risk for cyanide poisoning for all animals. Fruit pulp is considered safe, but large quantities of seed in fruit can be toxic. (Canadian Biodiversity Info System)

Bear, American Black

Ursus americanus

Coyote

Canis latrans

Fox, Eastern Gray

Urocyon cinereoargenteus

Fox, Red

Vulpes vulpes

Raccoon, Northern

Procyon lotor

Squirrel, Eastern Fox

Sciurus niger

Squirrel, Eastern Gray

Sciurus carolinensis

Flicker, Northern

Colaptes auratus

Grouse, Sharp-tailed

Tympanuchus phasianellus

Book References:

Elpel, T.J. (2013) Botany in a Day (APG). Pony, Montana: Hops Press, LLC.

Martin, A.C., Zim, H.S., Nelson, A.L. (1951). American Wildlife and Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits. New York: Dover Publications.

Scott, M. (2013). Songbird Diet Index. National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, St. Cloud, MN.

Townsend, J. F. (2015, April) Rare Plants Natural Heritage Technical Report 15-10. (Unpublished Report) Richmond, Virginia: Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Division of Natural Heritage.

Virginia Department of Forestry (2010). Common Native Trees of Virginia: Tree Identification Guide.

Online References:

Anderson, Michelle D. 2004. Prunus pensylvanica. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online].
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer).
Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [2016, December 20].

Canadian Poison Plants Information System. (n.d.) Retrieved on 8/6/17 from the Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility at http://www.cbif.gc.ca/eng/species-bank/canadian-poisonous-plants-information-system/canadian-poisonous-plants-information-system/?id=1370403266275

Uchytil, Ronald J. 1991. Prunus serotina. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer).
Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [2016, December 20].

USDA, NRCS. 2015. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov, 4 February 2016). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.

Virginia Botanical Associates. (Accessed February 2, 2016). Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora (http://www.vaplantatlas.org). c/o Virginia Botanical Associates, Blacksburg.