Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 989 Prunus serotina

Common Names: black cherry, wild cherry, rum cherry Family: Rosaceae (rose Family)
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black cherry tree
It's mid-spring and these black cherry trees are beginning to bloom.


A favorite native American tree, the handsome black cherry has a straight trunk and an oblong crown, and usually gets 40-60 ft (12.2-18.3 m) high, but can sometimes get as much as 100 ft (30.5 m) tall. The bark is light to dark gray, developing squarish scaly fissures with age. The oval to lance shaped shiny dark green leaves are 2-6 in (5.1-15.2 cm) long and arranged alternately. They end in a sharp point and have fine teeth along the margins. When crushed, the leaves smell like black cherry soda pop. Before dropping in autumn, they usually turn yellow or red.

The fragrant tiny white flowers are borne abundantly in elongated drooping clusters 4-6 in (10.2-15.2 cm) long. They appear in early spring as the leaves are unfolding. In flower, the black cherry is very showy, and always abuzz with delighted insects. The cherries are dark red, almost black, about 0.33 in (0.8 cm) in diameter and ripen in early summer. They are thin skinned and juicy, but usually somewhat bitter tasting and each contains a single stone. Several botanical varieties have been named and the horticulturists have named a handful of selections.

wild cherries
Near the end of summer the wild cherries are ripe - just in time to nourish hungry flocks of migrating birds.
black cherry blossoms
Black cherry blossoms appear at the same time that the leaves are beginning to unfold.


Prunus serotina, the black cherry, is common throughout eastern North America, from southern Canada to central Florida, and west to Minnesota and eastern Texas. It also occurs naturally in higher elevations in New Mexico and Arizona, and south through Mexico to Guatemala. Black cherry grows best on moist, fertile soils, but can be found in just about any forest, along any roadside, or in any abandoned field within its range. The seeds are spread by birds, so black cherry is often abundant under utility wires along highways, and along fence rows. Although it sometimes occurs in pure stands, black cherry is usually a component of mixed forests and weedy hedge rows.


Black cherry grows fast and is quite long lived. In spring, black cherry trees are often disfigured by tent caterpillars, but these usually do no long term harm, and are themselves eaten by yellow-billed cuckoos, great crested flycatchers and other native songbirds. Light: Foresters classify black cherry as an "intolerant" species, meaning it cannot survive in shade. Black cherry seedlings require a gap in the forest, and grow best in full sun. Moisture: Black cherries thrive with annual rainfalls of 20-80 in (50.8-200.3 cm) Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 9. Propagation: Black cherry seeds require 3-4 months of chilling before they will germinate. Selections are propagated from soft wood cuttings in spring.
wild cherry's autumn leaves
In autumn the black cherry tree's leaves are ablaze in fiery shades of yellow, orange and red.
trunk and bark
As the black cherry tree matures dark fissures form on the smooth gray bark.


The black cherry is perfectly suited for the woodland, semi-natural garden. It can be too messy in a more formal setting, dropping its abundant and juicy fruits in summer, then leaves in autumn, then giving rise to millions of seedlings the following spring. Black cherry produces flowers and fruits every year, but puts forth an especially abundant crop every 3 or 4 years.

The leaves and inner bark of black cherry contain a cyanide compound that smells like almonds and was formerly used in cough medicines and liniments. The cherries are edible, if somewhat bitter, and are used for jelly and wine making and to flavor brandy. Brandy or rum flavored with black cherries is called "cherry bounce." The cherries are eaten by all manner of wildlife and are especially relished by songbirds. Deer and rabbits eat the seedlings and saplings, and where abundant, these herbivores may prevent any cherry trees from growing up. The wood is reddish brown, close grained and very hard. It is used for furniture, veneer, tool handles, and has few rivals as a fine cabinet wood.


The black cherry is the largest native American cherry. 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, its attraction to songbirds and its fall color make it a highly desirable shade tree if you have the room.


The cyanide compounds in the twigs and older, wilted leaves are toxic (and possibly lethal) to horses and cattle.

In the spring of 2001 hundreds of thoroughbred horse foals where mysteriously miscarried or stillborn. The problem was traced to Eastern Tent Caterpillars that had fed on the many black cherry trees in the Lexington, Kentucky horse farm region. The caterpillars concentrated the toxic cyanide compounds present in black cherry foliage. Their feces contaminated the famous bluegrass pastures and was ingested by the grazing mares.

A spokesman for the University of Kentucky Agriculture Department reports: "The unusual weather pattern could have caused the cyanide levels in the trees to be higher..." The university recommends that horse breeders restrict access to pastures when caterpillar populations are high.

Steve Christman 6/14/04, 11/24/04, 6/16/06, 4/9/12, 8/25/12

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Prunus species profiled on Floridata:

Prunus americana

( wild plum, American plum )

Prunus angustifolia

( Chickasaw plum )

Prunus campanulata

( Taiwan flowering cherry, Formosan cherry, bell-flowered cherry )

Prunus caroliniana

( Carolina cherry laurel, cherry laurel )

Prunus laurocerasus

( English laurel, cherry laurel )

Prunus serotina

( black cherry, wild cherry, rum cherry )

Prunus serrula

( paperbark cherry, Tibetan cherry )

Prunus serrulata

( Japanese flowering cherry, Japanese cherry,oriental cherry, hill cherry )

Prunus subhirtella

( higan cherry, rosebud cherry )

Prunus virginiana

( chokecherry, common chokecherry, chokeberry )

Prunus x cistena

( purple sand cherry,purpleleaf sand cherry )

Prunus x yedoensis

( Yoshino cherry, Potomac cherry, Tokyo cherry )

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