black cherry (Prunus serotina)
wild black cherry
mountain black cherry
SCIENTIFIC SYNONYMS: There are no scientific synonyms for
CONFIRMATION STATUS: Confirmed.
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name of black cherry is
Prunus serotina Ehrh.. Recognized varieties found in the United States and
Canada include: 1) variety serotina (black cherry), 2) variety alabamensis
(Mohr) Little ( Alabama black cherry), 3) variety exima (Small) Little
(escarpment black cherry), and 4) var. rufula (Woot. & Standl) McVaugh
(southwestern black cherry).
NATIVE STATUS: Native, United States and Canada.
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Black cherry is a
deciduous, single-stemmed, medium- to large-sized tree. In the forest
it typically has a large, straight, branch-free bole with a narrow crown,
but in openings it tends to have a shorter trunk and a broad, irregular
crown. In the East, typical black cherry (var. serotina) may reach 125
feet (38 m) in height and 4 feet (1.2 m) or more in diameter. Southwestern
varieties are typically much smaller. Southwestern black cherry (var.
rufula) seldom grows taller than 30 feet (9 m), and escarpment black
cherry (var. exima) taller than 50 feet (15 m) . Black cherry has a shallow
and spreading root system. Most roots occur within 24 inches (61 cm) of
the soil surface. Bark on young stems is thin, smooth, and reddish-brown
to nearly black. On large trunks the bark is fissured and scaly but remains
thin. Black cherry has simple, 2- to 6-inch-long, thick and leathery leaves.
White flowers occur in 3- to 4-inch-long, oblong-cylindric racemes at the
end of leafy twigs of the season. The fruit is a nearly globular, one-seeded,
purplish-black to black, 0.5 inch (1.2 cm) diameter drupe. The seed is an
oblong-ovoid stone about 0.33 inch (0.75 cm) long.
REGENERATION PROCESSES: In natural stands maximum seed
production occurs on 30- to 100-year-old trees. Some seed is produced
almost every year, with good crops produced at 1- to 5-year intervals.
In Pennsylvania, large seed crops occur about every other year. Seeds
are dispersed by gravity, birds, and mammals. The fruits fall shortly
after ripening in late summer or fall. Seeds not dispersed by animals
generally land near the parent tree. Thus the abundance of seedlings in
the understory is related to the number and distribution of seed trees in
the overstory. Because of animal dispersal, however, black cherry seed-
lings are often abundant in stands with no or few seed-producing black
cherry trees. Germination tests show that black cherry seeds that pass
through the digestive tracts of passerine birds successfully germinate
after proper cold stratification, and have higher germination rates than
undigested seeds. Usually over 90 percent of seeds are sound. Dormancy
and germination: Black cherry seeds require cold stratification to germinate.
This occurs as seeds overwinter on the forest floor. Black cherry exhibits
delayed germination: seeds from one crop germinate over a period of 3
years. Delayed germination allows black cherry to bank large amounts of
seed in the forest floor. There are typically hundreds of thousands of black
cherry seeds stored in the soil of black cherry-maple stands in Pennsylvania
in any given year. Each spring about one-half of these germinate. Black
cherry's moisture and light requirements for germination are not as
exacting as those of its associates. However, moist seedbeds ensure good
germination. Seeds germinate in loose soil and forest litter, but germination
is somewhat higher in litter than mineral soil.
Seedlings typically grow to a height of 2 to 4 inches (5-10 cm) 30 days
after germination. In dense shade, they grow very slowly, sometimes
reaching 6 inches (15 cm) in height in 3 or 4 years, but die thereafter
unless released. An understory of tiny black cherry seedlings is common
in numerous mixed deciduous forests. If the canopy is opened due to
windthrow, harvest, or other disturbance, the seedlings survive well
and grow rapidly in full sunlight.
Black cherry sprouts vigorously from the stump following cutting or fire.
Sprouting frequency of stumps remains high, probably over 90 percent,
for trees up to about 60 years of age.
SITE CHARACTERISTICS: Black cherry occurs in numerous
mesic woods and second-growth hardwood forests in the eastern United
States and Canada. It is also common in old fields and along fence rows
It grows on a variety of soil types, textures, and drainages but is most
abundant on mesic sites. Black cherry attains its greatest abundance on
the Allegheny Plateau, where it is found on nearly all soil types. In this
region it grows somewhat better on middle and lower slopes of eastern
and northern exposures than on the dry soils associated with south- or
west- facing slopes. This mesophytic tendency becomes even more
pronounced farther south. In the southern Appalachians, black cherry
generally grows as scattered individuals with other mesophytic hard-
woods and occasionally forms pure stands at high elevations. In the
Great Smoky Mountains, black cherry is best represented in cove
forests below 5,500 feet (1,676 m). In southern Wisconsin, understory
black cherry is a conspicuous component of xeric oak forests and
savannas. In the southwestern United States, black cherry is confined
to canyons, valleys, and rich bottomlands.
SUCCESSIONAL STATUS: Black cherry is a seral, shade-intolerant,
gap-phase species. It rarely occurs in the canopy of late successional
deciduous forests but buried seed and seedlings are often present in the
understory. Seedlings may survive in the understory for about 5 years
but then die or die-back to the stem base unless released. Seedlings that
die are soon replaced because of the abundance of buried seed. Any
disturbance which opens the canopy will release this bank of suppressed
seedlings. Once released, young black cherry grow rapidly and quickly fill
the gap, overtopping shade-tolerant associates. Because of its abundant
soil-stored seeds and prolific sprouting ability, black cherry dominates
secondary succession following logging, fire, or wind-throw. In bur and
white oak (Quercus macrocarpa, Quercus alba) woodlands in southern
Wisconsin, black cherry accounts for about one-half of the total number of
seedlings and saplings but is largely absent from the overstory. Under the
shade of the oaks, black cherry saplings repeatedly die-back to the stem
base and resprout. Black cherry can persist, by maintaining a small above-
ground size, for 40 to 60 years until released. Long-distance seed dispersal
by birds is important in the establishment of black cherry along fence rows
and into forest openings, old fields, and pine plantations.
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: Black cherry flowers in the spring when
the leaves are one-half to fully expanded. Fruits develop over the spring
and summer and ripen by early to late summer depending on latitude and
climate. The fruits fall soon after ripening. Fruit maturation may vary by
as much as 3 weeks on trees in the same stand.
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: Black cherry grows in eastern North
America from western Minnesota south to eastern Texas, and eastward
to the Atlantic from central Florida to Nova Scotia. Outlying populations
grow in central Texas; in the mountains of western Texas, New Mexico,
and Arizona; and south in Mexico to Guatemala. The varieties are
distributed as follows: 1) typical black cherry (var. serotina) - from Nova
Scotia west to central Minnesota, south to east Texas, and east to central
Florida; 2) Alabama black cherry (var. alabamensis) - from eastern Georgia
west to northeastern Alabama, and south to northwestern Florida (also
local in South Carolina and North Carolina; 3) escarpment cherry (var.
exima) - found in the Edwards Plateau region of central Texas; and 4)
southwestern black cherry (var. rufula) - in the mountains from western
Texas to central Arizona, and south to northern and central Mexico.
SKY MEADOWS DISTRIBUTION:
Tree specimens can be found on trails marked in red.
Appalachian Trail/Old Trail
South Ridge/North Ridge
Rolling Meadows/ Lost Mountain
HABITAT TYPES AND PLANT COMMUNITIES: Black cherry
occurs as scattered individuals in numerous forest types of the East. It is
codominant in only one cover type, the black cherry-maple type found in
the Allegheny Plateau and Allegheny Mountain sections of New York,
Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia. In this type, black cherry is
a primary component along with red maple (Acer rubrum), sugar maple
(Acer saccharum), and white ash (Fraxinus americana). Other common
associates include American beech (Fagus grandifolia), eastern hemlock
(Tsuga canadensis), sweet birch (Betula lenta), yellow birch (Betula
alleghaniensis), yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), cucumbertree
(Magnolia acuminata), oak (Quercus spp.), and hickory (Carya spp.).
IMPORTANCE AND USES: Black cherry leaves, twigs, bark, and
seeds are poisonous to livestock. They contain a cyanogenic glycoside
which breaks down during digestion into hydrocyanic acid. Most live-
stock poisoning apparently comes from eating wilted leaves, which
contain more of the toxin than fresh leaves do. One author speculated
that more livestock are killed from eating black cherry than from any
other plant. White-tailed deer eat the leaves and twigs without harm,
and browse small to moderate amounts of seedlings and saplings.
Black cherry fruits are important mast for numerous species of birds and
mammals. Numerous songbirds feed on black cherries as they migrate
south in the fall. Passerine birds that make considerable use of black
cherry fruits include the American robin, brown thrasher, mockingbird,
eastern bluebird, European starling, gray catbird, blue jay, willow
flycatcher, northern cardinal, common crow, and waxwings, thrushes,
woodpeckers, grackles, grosbeaks, sparrows, and vireos. Black cherries
are also important in the summer and fall diets of the ruffed grouse,
sharp-tailed grouse, wild turkey, northern bobwhite, and greater and
lesser prairie chicken. The red fox, raccoon, opossum, and squirrels and
rabbits also eat the fruit. Black cherries have been described as a favorite
food of black bears.
Black cherry is moderately palatable to white-tailed deer; they prefer
sugar maple, white ash, yellow birch, yellow-poplar, and pin cherry
(Prunus pensylvanica). The fruits are highly palatable to song birds,
upland game birds, and mammals.
Black cherry is used for surface mine spoil reclamation in the East.
Best results are obtained by planting 1-year-old or older nursery grown
seedlings. Direct seeding has generally been unsuccessful.
Black cherry is an important commercial tree. The rich reddish-brown
wood is strong, hard, and close-grained. It works well and finishes smoothly,
making it one of the most valued cabinet and furniture woods in North
America. Black cherry wood is also used for paneling, interior trim,
veneers, handles, crafts, toys, and scientific instruments. Black cherry's
commercial range, where large numbers of high-quality trees are found,
is restricted to the Allegheny Plateau of Pennsylvania, New York, and
Black cherry bark was used historically in the Appalachians as a cough
remedy, tonic, and sedative. The fruit was also used to flavor rum and
brandy. Pitted fruits are edible, and are eaten raw and used in wine and
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