Black Cherry: Chokecherry’s Better Cousin

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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{ 41 comments… add one }
  • Robert October 31, 2011, 1:23 pm

    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?

    • Green Deane October 31, 2011, 1:51 pm

      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.

  • Robert October 31, 2011, 2:48 pm

    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.

  • Cameron Carlile July 8, 2012, 9:49 pm

    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.

    • Green Deane July 11, 2012, 8:39 pm

      Yes, it is a favorite for smoking food.

  • Veronika Freeman, dotcalm August 3, 2012, 11:38 am

    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!

  • Joyce E Forager October 11, 2012, 1:37 pm

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

    • Green Deane October 14, 2012, 9:20 pm

      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.

  • Ana October 13, 2012, 11:41 pm

    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.

    • Green Deane October 14, 2012, 8:55 pm

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

  • Sandhillpam June 5, 2013, 8:07 am

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

  • Grant Schroeder July 3, 2013, 1:33 pm

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

  • Bob W July 8, 2013, 8:16 pm

    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

    • Tammy Baugh April 18, 2014, 1:38 am

      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.

  • Jay Dee July 29, 2013, 11:24 am

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

    • Green Deane July 29, 2013, 2:43 pm

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

  • Jay Dee August 2, 2013, 1:19 pm

    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

  • Joey White September 14, 2013, 10:16 pm

    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.

    • Green Deane September 15, 2013, 4:39 pm

      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.

      • Joey White September 16, 2013, 3:46 pm

        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.

  • Marie February 4, 2014, 6:10 pm

    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.

  • Becky Buechler June 21, 2014, 2:36 pm

    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 12 to34 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!

    • Green Deane June 21, 2014, 4:46 pm

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

      • Liam Miller August 8, 2016, 10:21 pm

        Did you mean the deadly Prunus caroliniana?

        • Green Deane August 9, 2016, 8:45 pm

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

  • Jay Dee July 22, 2014, 11:47 pm

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

  • Linda Gowen August 17, 2014, 10:38 am

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

  • Alecia Butler August 30, 2014, 12:56 pm

    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!

    • Green Deane August 30, 2014, 8:07 pm

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

  • Deborah September 7, 2014, 10:38 am

    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.

    • Green Deane September 7, 2014, 6:33 pm

      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.

  • Paco Tqa August 31, 2015, 10:51 pm

    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.

  • Debi Sanguedolce June 12, 2016, 3:56 pm

    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?

  • Michele March 14, 2017, 4:30 pm

    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.

    • Green Deane March 15, 2017, 8:22 pm

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

  • Maria Moseley June 7, 2017, 1:51 pm

    Well, I don’t know what I have then! The 2 we’ve found in close-proximity to our house are definitely in the shade, but the fruit are ripe right now and we are surprised to have beaten the squirrels to the punch. Last year, by the time I notice ripe fruit, the squirrels were busily eating off the racemes as if they were cobs of corn. We’ve tasted the fruit and found it pleasant, only slightly bitter. I’ll attempt to upload some photos of the fruit and leaves to the e-mail you provided. At least blackberries and elderberries are still easily identified–we’ve had a bumper-crop of the feral blackberries, even some so swollen and ripe they’ve begun to ferment on the canes (we’re in west-central GA, USA, btw)! Happy foraging, all!

  • Calen June 7, 2017, 10:20 pm

    Great article! I love your blog. I Just wanted to say that I do in fact have a wild black cherry tree growing in the woods near my house in northwest Volusia County in nearly full shade, beneath a big water oak and camphors. It’s been there at least 30 years. I’ve eaten tons of berries off it this year. So it is possible for them to grow like that. A peculiar Florida folklore side note about the black cherry is that it is the preferred tree for “water witchin” or water divination by the old time Florida Crackers. I’m a 9th generation Floridian, and this tree’s branches was/is sought by members of my family for this purpose over any other.

  • Suzanne July 4, 2017, 1:13 pm

    Have you or others found a slick way to pit these little guys?

    Thanks for the very informative site!


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