Black Cherry: Chokecherry’s Better Cousin

by Green Deane

in Alcohol, Antioxidants, Edible Raw, Fruits/Berries, Jam/Jelly, Medicinal, Plants, Toxic to Pets/livestock, Trees/Shrubs

Black cherries are a combination of sweet and bitter. Photo by Green Deane

Black cherries are a combination of sweet and bitter. Photo by Green Deane

Prunus serotina: Better Late than Never Cherry

Think of the Black Cherry as a chokecherry with some of the choke removed… some…

Not a 100 feet from the house I grew up in there was a stand of chokecherries (Prunus virginiana, PROO-nus  vir-jin-nee-AY-nuh.) It was always a challenge to put in perspective their abundant beautiful cherries with their sharp astringent taste. Of course fermentation helped that a lot and chokecherry wine was a favorite of mine. Fortunately the Black Cherry does not throttle you as much as the chokecherry, but it grabs a little. In between those two is the pin cherry.

Here in central Florida the most common edible cherry we see is the Black Cherry, Prunus serotina (sair-OTT-ih-nuh) though it grows throughout the eastern half of North America, lower parts of New Mexico and Arizona then south into Mexico and beyond. It has been naturalized in Europe. It’s easy to identify. Look at the back of several leaves. On other than a new leaf the mid-rib underneath will have hair on either side near the stem, blond when young turning rust colored to black when old. See photo below.

Blossoms are racemes, or spikes of fruit ripening from one end

Florida is the end of its Black Cherry’s range. Often its leaves are more lance shaped here than usual and can resemble the pin cherry (Prunus Pennsylvania) which does not grow this far south. So if you’re in Florida and you see a bird picking a little cherry it’s an odds on favorite to be the Black Cherry. Unlike the chokecherry, the Black Cherry is a favorite native tree. It has been used for food, woodworking and landscaping. Its inner bark has been concocted for centuries to make a cough syrup. While the Black Cherry makes a fast-growing attractive landscape tree, it is sometimes skipped over because it drops cherries and formal gardeners often don’t like that, though the birds and animals do.

Homemade cherry cough syrup

Black Cherry fruits are important food many birds and mammals.  Numerous songbirds feed on Black Cherries as they migrate particularly farther north in the fall. Among the birds who favor the Black Cherry are the American robin, brown thrasher, mockingbird, eastern bluebird, European starling, gray catbird, blue jay, willow flycatcher, northern cardinal, common crow, waxwings, thrushes, woodpeckers, grackles, grosbeaks, sparrows, and vireos.  Black cherries are also important in the diets of the ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, wild turkey, northern bobwhite, and greater and lesser prairie chicken.  Animals that like the fruit include the red fox, raccoon, opossum, squirrels, rabbits and bears. White tail deer eat the leaves and twigs. Clearly a tree to watch if you want to see wild life.

Usually the berries are made into wine a jelly. Photo by Green Deane

Usually the berries are made into wine a jelly. Photo by Green Deane

While the fruit is popular the leaves, twigs, bark, and seeds are poisonous to cattle, horses and man. They contain a cyanogenic glycoside that breaks down during digestion creating hydrocyanic acid… better known as cyanide  Most of the livestock poisoning comes from eating wilted leaves, which are more toxic than fresh leaves.  It is estimated that more livestock are killed from eating Black Cherry leaves than from any other plant. This is a case in which browsing animals do not sense it it is bad for them. Oddly, deer don’t have a problem with Black Cherry leaves, twigs or shoots.

The fruit of the Black Cherry has some 17 antioxidants, including anthocyanins, queritrin and isqueritrin. It is also a rich source of melatonin. The fruit contains Vitamin A, B complex vitamins, Vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and traces of copper, selenium, zinc, and cadmium.

Leaves of the black cherry have hair along the main stem, white to dark brown. Photo by Green Deane

Leaves of the black cherry have hair along the main stem, white to dark brown. Photo by Green Deane

There is some debate whether the cherry stones are edible by man after preparation. In some Indian cultures the Prunus genus seed kernels were pounded up. The mash was made into cakes and allowed to dry for a couple of days. Then they were cooked. With some species this gets rid of the glycoside and makes the seed edible. If you experiment, you are absolutely on your own. I recommend you DON’T try it and don’t sue me if you do. Nothing you eat of any cherry should ever have the aroma or taste of almonds (or to some noses, maraschino cherries.)  Any time you have an almond aroma or taste in association with cherries that is cyanide. It can kill you. Avoid it.

In the spring of 2001 hundreds of foals in Kentucky where mysteriously miscarried or stillborn. The problem was traced to Eastern Tent Caterpillars which had fed on the Black Cherry trees in the horse farm region. The caterpillars concentrated the toxic cyanide compounds in their feces which then contaminated the bluegrass eaten by pregnant mares. A spokesman for the University of Kentucky Agriculture Department said: “The unusual weather pattern could have caused the cyanide levels in the trees to be higher…” The university recommended that horse breeders restrict access to pastures when caterpillar populations are high.

Prunus is the Latin name for plum trees which comes from the Greek word  “prunos” meaning plum or cherry. Serotina is Latin “serus” (late) – late maturing fruit. Oddly, the Black Cherry, native to North America, has become an invasive species in Europe because a soil-borne pathogen — Pythium — in the soil in North America that is not present in Europe. That pathogen limits the tree’s range.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Leaves alternate, simple, 2 to 5 inches long, oblong to lance-shaped, finely serrated, very small glands on stem, dark green and lustrous above, paler below; usually small hairs along the leaf mid-rib. The flower is small, white in hanging, narrow racemes 4 to 6 inches long, late spring. Fruit is a dark purple round drupe, nearly black when ripe, 1/3 inch in diameter, bitter-sweet taste. Bark smooth with  short, narrow, horizontal lenticels when young; when older nearly black, breaking up into small, rough, irregular, upturned plates resembling potato chips or corn flakes. Young twigs have an almond-like odor when broken. Crushed leaves smell cherry-ish. The tree is oval in shape. DO NOT CONFUSE WITH THE COMMON BUCKTHORN WHICH LOOKS SIMILAR BUT HAS CURVED VEINS IN THE LEAF AND TWO SEED IN THE FRUIT. THE CHERRY LEAF VEINS ARE STRAIGHT AND IT HAS ONE SEED. If the leaf you have has only a few soft spines around the edge it is the very toxic cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana.)  It has blue/black hard fruit when and is NOT edible. That species also has two glans on the underside of the leaf near the base of the stem.

TIME OF YEAR: Fruit matures in June in Florida, late summer farther to early fall farther north.

ENIRONMENT: A pioneer species, it will move into old fields, abandoned railways and the like. It likes cool areas best which is why it has stopped southward at the temperate/subtropical line in flat Florida. In Mexico south it is found at cooler, higher elevations. It absolutely will not grow in the shade. This is a tree you will find in full sun.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Free of their stones, the fruits can be made into jellies, jams, pies, wine and liquors. It is used for flavoring in soda and ice cream. A cough syrup is made from the inner bark. You can cook the cherries with their stones and then separate. Throw the stones away.

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Michele March 14, 2017 at 16:30

You have given a wonderful description, however i still am not sure what i chanced upon this past weekend in Osceola county, just south of the orlando airport. I have a picture. Is there anyway i can submit it to you? It has beautiful bright cherry like berries. The leaves are more lance like. I would love to know what it is. Thank you for your wonderful website and you tube videos. I enjoy them so much.

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Green Deane March 15, 2017 at 20:22

Sure you can send it to GreenDeane@gmail.com. This time of year you will see red berries on Brazilian Pepper (or if a small shrub, Coral Berry.)

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Debi Sanguedolce June 12, 2016 at 15:56

Thank you for your clear description of wild cherry tree. I want to use the inner bark for medicine. Unable to separate inner from outer bark. Will boiling both barks together remove the cyanide?

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Paco Tqa August 31, 2015 at 22:51

Hi,
Do you have any clue if the cyanogenic glycoside would degrade/disappear from the bark after the branches have dried up?

See, I’ve got a couple of branches that I wanted to use as decor in a freshwater aquarium, which have been dried for a couple of months. I have soaked the branches in warm water for a week or so; then as the wood got waterlogged, the bark softened and I scrapped it away.

But now after reading your article, I’m worried the toxic compounds in the bark would have become activated and infused in the wood. I’m about ready to throw the branches away and look for a different option, but would greatly appreciate any comments from you.
Thanks!

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Deborah September 7, 2014 at 10:38

Well, I’m disappointed. I thought I had a baby black cherry in my front yard, but it seems to be a cherry laurel, mainly because the stem is dark red. Still, I was loooking for something to grow as a hedge, so this may be a good choice. I’m looking for a black cherry around here somewhere so I can have one in my yard. Do they bear on new wood or old wood, because I want to keep mine sort of small, but still want cherries.

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Green Deane September 7, 2014 at 18:33

I usually identify cherry laurel by aroma. The crushed leaves smell like almonds or marashindo cherries. The tree is very toxic. Where do you live. The natal plum makes a good hedge in warm areas.

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Alecia Butler August 30, 2014 at 12:56

Hi, I’m trying to identify the tree behind our house and believe it is the black cherry. If it has the hair on the main stem of the back of the leaf does that mean its black cherry? Everything else about it looks right. Thanks!

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Green Deane August 30, 2014 at 20:07

Where do you live, and do you have a picture?

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Linda Gowen August 17, 2014 at 10:38

We just had to cut down one of our Black Cherry trees (it split at a biforcation). Can the wood be used as firewood?

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Green Deane August 17, 2014 at 23:39

As far as I know, yes.

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Jay Dee July 22, 2014 at 23:47

I think its worth mentioning that black cherries each have a calyx whereas other lookalikes don’t.

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Becky Buechler June 21, 2014 at 14:36

Great page! I thought a tree I had in Putnam County Fla. was black cherry. Then another cherry type tree fruited..according to the pictures on this page the second tree is the black cherry..It has the cluster of fruit, pea sized. The other tree also is friuting but not in clusters. The berries are 1\2 to3\4 inch in size, they have a single pit and turn dark purple when ripe. Now I don’t know what kind of cherry that is!

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Green Deane June 21, 2014 at 16:46

Make sure it is not the deadly prunus serotina, the Laurel Cherry.

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Liam Miller August 8, 2016 at 22:21

Did you mean the deadly Prunus caroliniana?

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Green Deane August 9, 2016 at 20:45

What is the question in reference to? I mention in the article that P. caroliniana is toxic.

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Marie February 4, 2014 at 18:10

I have eaten the cooked fruit many times and infused alcohols with it. The almondy cyanide taste comes through strong (as it does with serviceberries). I am hale and hearty.

In the Middle East a spice is made with powdered wild cherry stones: mahlab. It is used in small quantities in baking.

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Joey White September 14, 2013 at 22:16

I like your website very much, it is always helpful and interesting. I have a question about laurel cherry. I am a spoon carver and have carved lots of black cherry, recently I picked up some nice pieces of laurel cherry but I am worried about the wood being toxic. If you could help me with this I would appreciate it very much. Thanks.

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Green Deane September 15, 2013 at 16:39

I will ask a friend who is a lifelong wood worker. However I know cyanide can be absorbed through the skin but I’m not sure in which form that happens. It is usually bonded to another molecule and has to be separated by the digestive track to be available. So I don’t know but I will find out.

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Joey White September 16, 2013 at 15:46

I went ahead and split one of the pieces and the smell of cyanide was overwhelming. That was enough for me. Thanks for the reply.

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Jay Dee August 2, 2013 at 13:19

Can you cut off choke cherries as clusters? Id assume not since it looks like part of the tree as opposed to grapes, but I figure it wouldnt hurt to ask

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Green Deane August 2, 2013 at 19:05

yes, but use only the fruit pulp.

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Jay Dee July 29, 2013 at 11:24

Can you cut off choke cherry clusters or will it damage the tree? What about pin,black cherries, or wild grape?

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Green Deane July 29, 2013 at 14:43

It’s the plants intention that the fruit be removed.

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Bob W July 8, 2013 at 20:16

Unless I missed it, are the cherries toxic to dogs? Mine loves the wild blueberries and the wild grapes. So far I have kept her away from the cherries.

Thank You for the great site
Bob W

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Tammy Baugh April 18, 2014 at 01:38

On the can the dogs eat the cherries question? I don’t know, I do know over and over again I have read on the net that grapes are toxic to cats and dogs. I am telling you only since I have been looking for healthy recipes to cook up for our 2 dogs and 14 cats. There are lists all over that include the grape as a toxic food to feed either cats or dogs. You should check it out.

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Grant Schroeder July 3, 2013 at 13:33

If a bing cherry has white spots on it would it be a good idea for me to eat it?

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Green Deane July 3, 2013 at 14:22

No.

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Sandhillpam June 5, 2013 at 08:07

Do you have any tips for harvesting and processing the cherries for wine?

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Ana October 13, 2012 at 23:41

Pleasantly surprised to have solved this mystery. I live in Gulfport, Florida and recently watched several of these described trees grow plump and droopy berries. They looked like a relative of the cherry tree to me but I had no idea what these trees were. Sometime in August I saw a family gathering berries from one with a large bed sheet spread out underneath. I asked one of them what they were and she called them blackberries… I’m excited to know they are edible.

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Green Deane October 14, 2012 at 20:55

In the spring, flip a leaf over and look for some brown to black hair along the under midrip down near the stem.

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Joyce E Forager October 11, 2012 at 13:37

When is a good time for harvesting the bark for syrup in central Florida?

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Green Deane October 14, 2012 at 21:20

You must be careful because the bark does contain a cyanide-like glycoside prunasin which can convert to the highluy toxic hydrocynac acid. The toxin is highest in the fall. Definitely consult a competent herbalist before trying anything medicinal.

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Veronika Freeman, dotcalm August 3, 2012 at 11:38

We planted 6 trees on our property (we didn’t know the downsides to the species… oh well) and I was wondering how many years one typically needs to wait before there is edible fruit on them? So looking forward to black cherry jam made from scratch!
Thanks!
V-

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Cameron Carlile July 8, 2012 at 21:49

Would smoking meats with Black Cherry be unwise? I’ve done it in the past. The wood has a nice sweet smoke. But the cyanide related compounds give pause.

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Green Deane July 11, 2012 at 20:39

Yes, it is a favorite for smoking food.

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Robert October 31, 2011 at 14:48

I’m beginning to think most of the black cherries that I have ID’d were actually laurel cherry. Luckily, I’ve never attempted ingesting either. Thanks for the quick and very thorough reply.

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Robert October 31, 2011 at 13:23

Very interesting article. Where I live in East Texas, I was taught two cherry species : black cherry (P. serotina) and Carolina laurel cherry (P. caroliniana), whose sole differentiating characteristics were the orange pubescence at the midrib and the timing of some sort of reproductive function. My question is: What are the differences in terms of edibility and toxicity, and are there any more conclusive ID characteristics that one could use in differentiating the two?

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Green Deane October 31, 2011 at 13:51

Oh my… the differences are numerous including the fact that the Prunus caroliniana is toxic. Things that are called “laurel” often keep their leaves through the winter, that is they stay evergreen as the P. caroliniana does locally. Also if you crush a leaf of the P. caroliniana you will smell either or cherries or almonds. That is cyanide. If you look at a number of leaves you will find some with sporatic teeth, one here, two or three there. Some no teeth. The blue-black fruit tends to stay on the P. caroliniana through the winter whereas creatures usually strip other cherries of fruit by summer’s end.The fruit of the P. caroliniana is egg-shaped with a pointed tip, other cherries are round if not flattened on both ends, like sitting on a beach ball. P. caroliniana will also grow in some shade. Usually evergreen, persistent fruit, egg-shaped with a pointed tip, mostly seed, leaves smell of cherries and or almonds, leaves have sporatic teeth.

Your black cherry Prunus serotina loses its leaves, and fruit. The fruit, red black, is round, if not flattened on both ends. NOT POINTED. Leaves have no particular aroma. It absolutely will not grow in any shade.

I would key in on the fruit. The toxic one has small egg-shaped fruit with a small pointed tip. The edible one has round if not dimpled fruit.

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