Black Cherry – A Complete Guide To Growing, Care, And Uses


The Black Cherry is a deciduous hardwood tree native to North America. Scientifically known as Prunus serotina, it will grow 80′ tall in full sun and well draining soil. Blooming numerous white flowers in Spring, it is incredibly valuable to wildlife. It’s flowers attract bees, it hosts 400+ species of caterpillar, and birds & mammals eat the fruit.[1][2][3]

In addition to being valuable for wildlife, Black Cherry trees have lots of value to people as well. The flowers are showy in Spring, and the fruit (minus the pit) is edible and can be used to make jam, pies, and to flavor wine or liquor. The lumber has a deep reddish-brown color that darkens with age and is commonly used to make cabinets, furniture, tool handles, and precision instruments[4].

A highly adaptable tree, Black Cherry can be found in climates ranging from the somewhat arid regions of Arizona/New Mexico to Florida, but will grow best in full sun with medium moisture. The best climate with the largest tress is the Allegheny plateau regions of New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia[1][5]. As trees from this region are large enough to be utilized for lumber or as veneer[6].

Found within and on the periphery of hardwood forests, Black Cherry is shade intolerant. But initially it can out-compete and grow faster than other hardwoods such as oak, beech, hickory, and maple until it reaches maturity, when it usually succumbs to shade from the other, taller hardwood species that surpass it over time[1]. So, you don’t often find mature specimens in tall mature, dense hardwood forests.

I have admired and been around Black Cherry trees my whole life. From observing their flowers and fruit while growing up to growing them from seed as an adult. Nowadays I like to take heart in all the wildlife they support as well as the beautiful flowers they produce in Spring. This article will be a comprehensive guide to all things related to Black Cherry, as I’ll share all the knowledge I’ve accumulated & my direct experiences (and photos) with you.

In this article:

Facts about the Black Cherry

  • Is highly adaptable in temperate climates, and is only intolerant of shade and poorly draining soil
  • One of the most important trees for attracting birds, it hosts 400+ species of caterpillar that they feed to their young[3]. They also eat the fruit in late summer.
  • Produces beautiful lumber with a rich reddish-brown color that darkens with age (and also develops a luster).
  • Has been used medicinally by Native Americans and early Americans, particularly the inner bark as a cough remedy
  • The fruit (seed removed) is edible raw or cooked, and can be dried
  • Early settlers used the fruit to flavor liquor, commonly known as ‘Cherry Bounce’

Black Cherry tree reference table

Scientific NamePrunus serotina
Common Name(s)Black Cherry, Wild Black Cherry, Mountain Black Cherry, Rum Cherry
Native Range, USDA ZoneNorth America, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9
Bloom TimeSpring
Bloom Duration, Color2-3 weeks, white flowers
Growth Rate16″/year (40 cm / year)
Height80′-120′ (24-38 m)
Spacing / Spread– 30-60′ (10-20 m) for landscpaing
Light RequirementsFull sun to partial shade
Soil TypesSandy loam to clay loam, and rocky material that drains well.
MoistureSlightly moist to slightly dry
Fauna Associations / Larval HostsBees, pollinating flies, birds, mammals. Hosts 400+ species of butterfly and moth.
Sources [1][2][3][4][5]

Native Range of Black Cherry

The native range of Black Cherry is predominantly Eastern North America, from Manitoba to Louisianna then East to the Atlantic Ocean covering all States and Canadian Provinces in between. However there are populations that exist in Arizona, New Mexico, and even central Mexico.

In addition to these regions, there are established populations in the Pacific Northwest and Idaho. And this tree is also invasive to Europe, where it is spread by seed from birds[7].

What are the Benefits of Black Cherry

Beauty

Of all our taller native hardwood trees, Black Cherry flowers are quite possibly the showiest. If the tree produces lower branches, such as what happens in it’s pole stage or if grown on a forest edge, you will be treated to showy cones dotted with tiny flowerheads.

Wildlife

The Black Cherry is second only to Oak in it’s value to North American wildlife. The flowers are pollinated by numerous species of bee and butterfly. Fruits are eaten by numerous mammals and birds. And the leaves themselves host hundreds of species of butterfly and moth, which in turn are fed on by birds who feed them to their young in Spring[1].

Food

Humans have also enjoyed the fruit of Black Cherry. The fruit (seed removed) can be used to make pies, jam, and jelly. And it was also historically used to flavor rum and other liquors by Appalachian settlers, a drink they often called Cherry Bounce[1][2].

Lumber

The lumber made from mature Black Cherry trees has a reddish brown color that develops a luster or shine with age. It is prized for furniture, cabinets, and veneer[4].

Identification and Characteristics of Black Cherry

Lifespan

Black Cherry trees are long-lived. Specimens of 180 years have been observed[2].

Growth rate

The growth rate of Black Cherry is variable, being very rapid at the seedling-sapling-pole stage. Afterwards the growths slows substantially as the tree matures. This is dependent on available sunlight, as in shade, seedlings grow very slowly. Average annual diameter growth is approximately 3/16″-1/4″ between 10-70 years, and slightly less afterwards.

Seedlings or saplings of Black Cherry trees can be expected to grow an average of 18″ per year in the open, slowing as the tree gets taller. In optimum conditions young juveniles have been observed to grow 3′ per year (91 cm). And if fertilized, annual growth of 4-6′ is possible[2].

Now, as the tree ages, these growth rates will decrease substantially, adding more girth than height. But it is not uncommon for a sixty year old tree to reach heights of 80-100′ in good conditions.

Trunk / crown

In general Black Cherry trees will be single trunked, but can form multiple leaders, which will decrease future value of lumber. The crown is generally round at the top.

A Black Cherry tree with a straight trunk
A Black Cherry tree with co-dominant trunks. This will harm lumber value.

Bark

The bark of Black Cherry changes it’s appearance substantially as it ages.[2] Young bark is black to dark gray and appears to have horizontal lines that are actually lenticels. As the tree ages the bark will turn to a reddish brown to gray with a scaly or fissured texture[4].

Lookalikes

But the bark of young Black Cherry can resemble other Prunus species such as Chokecherry or Asian Cherry. And it can also be mistaken for Black or Yellow Birch bark, which can be a bit confusing.

Leaf

Bud of a Black Cherry

Black Cherry leaves will alternate up the talk, be lanceolate to ovate in shape, are up to 2-6″ wide (5-15 cm) by roughly 1-2″ wide (2-5 cm), and are attached by stems (petioles) that are about 1″ long (2.5 cm)[2]. The margins or edges are finely serrated, and the upper surface if medium green, while the under side is light green.

Black Cherry leaves

In Autumn, the leaves of Black Cherry will take on a red to peach color that is very beautiful.

Flower

The flowers of Black Cherry are arranged in Oblong-cylindric racemes that are 4-6″ long by 2″ diameter at the base. Individual flowers are 1/2″ diameter (12 mm) with 5 white petals and numerous stamen that give it an interesting appearance[1][2]. The flowers do not have any aroma.

Flowers of Black Cherry appear after leaves have formed in Spring. They will bloom for roughly three weeks through Spring and while an individual flower is much smaller than other Cherry species, the clusters are large enough to be showy.

Fruit

After flowering, a single thick-skinned berry (drupe) will form that begins green, changing to dark purple/black color that contains a single hard seed. They form in clusters where the flower racemes were, and begin ripening in August to mid-September depending on climate, conditions and individual tree. Trees within the same stand have been observed to have fruit maturation dates vary by as much as three weeks.[2]

The Black Cherries shown here are just starting to ripen, turning from red to black.

Fruit can be produced on trees as young as 10 years of age. And each year some seed is produced, while good crops are produced every 1-5 years.

And these fruits are the main reason how the tree spreads. The other being resprouts from cut stumps.

Harvesting Black Cherry fruit

Black Cherries can be harvested directly from the tree when ripened to a dark purple or black color. Alternatively, since much fruit will naturally fall from the tree, one can spread a tarp on the ground (weighed down by rocks) and then check for fallen fruit at the end of each day for a week or two.

Root

During the seedling/sapling stages Black Cherry will develop a taproot[1]. As the tree matures it will lose this taproot and develop shallow, wide spreading woody lateral roots[5]. The majority of the root system of mature trees will be in the upper 24″ of the soil[2].

Black Cherry toxicity

The bark, leaves, seeds, and twigs of Black Cherry are toxic to livestock and contain cyanogenic glycoside[10]. Seeds should also not be consumed by humans. However, the flesh of the fruit is perfectly fine.

Grow and Care for Black Cherry

Sunlight Requirements

Black Cherry will grow best in full sun conditions, which is at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. It can grow in partial shade (4-6 hours per day) but will not grow as fast or be as showy.

It must be understood that Black Cherry is not shade tolerant[1][2]. Seedlings and saplings will die without enough sunlight. And mature trees will often die from being shaded out from taller, but slower growing Maples and Oaks[2][7].

Soil Requirements

Black Cherry is highly adaptable for soil texture in that it can grow in anything from sandy loam to clay loam and even rocky material. It will grow best in soils that contain some organic matter though.

pH requirements

For pH, Black Cherry will do best in acidic soils with pH between 5-6.5[7]. It does not grow well in soils in which pH is above 7.0.

Moisture Requirements

For moisture, Black Cherry can grow in anything from moist to medium-moist soil. The soil should drain well, as it is intolerant of flooding and generally dies in saturated soils[7].

Maintenance

Black Cherry will not require much of any maintenance

Fertilizer

Black Cherry trees should not require any supplemental fertilizer.

Pruning Black Cherry trees

Black Cherry trees can sprout multiple leaders and sprouts. To help keep the tree to a single leader, prune codominant leaders in Fall. But in Spring, when unwanted sprouts emerge you can simply rub them off with your hand (wearing leather work gloves helps). Just make sure you use sterile pruning tools to keep disease at bay.

How to save seed from Black Cherry trees

In late summer, usually mid to late August in zone 6, the Black Cherries will ripen. Initially green, they will change to red and then ultimately a dark purple or black color.

Once they are truly ripe, the birds will aggressively eat them and they will also naturally fall from the tree. So pay attention to the color, and collect them as soon as they are ripe.

Seed size can vary by tree and growing conditions. Each bag holds seeds harvested from different trees.

Try to locate trees that grow along a forest edge, or in the open with lower limbs, as these are easier to collect fruit from. But to collect the fruit, simply pull mature clusters from the tree. Place them into a container. If you’re not going to process them immediately, place them into a zip-lock bag and store in the fridge for a week or two.

To process the seed, just squeeze the fruit and the hard seed will pop out. I like to do this on a plate. Then, place the seeds into a common kitchen strainer, and rinse thoroughly. Next, pat the surface of the seeds dry and place in a sealed container into the refrigerator for storage. Black Cherry seed can be stored in sealed containers in a refrigerated environment for up to 2 years at 41F with little loss of viability[8].

How to Grow Black Cherry from Seed

Black Cherry seeds have a dormancy mechanism preventing premature germination. In nature, the seed falls in late Summer before leaves drop. Then, they are covered in leaf-litter. Over the course of 1-3 years, most of the seeds will germinate[1]. The hard seed coat and cold dormancy requirements thus effecting them.

There is limited data on the true dormancy requirements of Black Cherry seeds. But, it is well understood that it can take long periods of time for the seed to germinate even after cold stratification or other treatments. However, it has been noted that it is not dependent on a frost splitting a seed coat, or decomposition of the seed coat by soil organisms, or digestion of birds[2]. But even in conventional research that has tried to obtain a repeatable germination protocol, single-digit germination percentages or common.

One study from Western Europe found that after soaking seeds for 72 hours in distilled water, combined with 8 weeks of cold stratification for 8 weeks resulted in a germination rate of ~35% after 24 weeks incubation at 10C. While if they soaked in Gibberellic Acid prior to stratification, they could increase the germination rates to over 60% with the same incubation[7].

A study from Turkey found a significant improvement in germination rates when a 20 day warm moist-stratification, followed by a 90 day cold stratification was performed. This treatment combination raised the germination rate by a factor of 2-3 fold compared to just a 90 day cold stratification[9].

And an old publication from the USDA, the Woody Plant Seed Manual (1948) recommended soaking seeds in sulfuric acid for 30 minutes, followed by 120 days cold-moist stratification at 41F[8]. Sulfuric acid is not exactly a common household item though, so I have not tried it.

I have successfully germinated Black Cherry seeds, but at a very low rate. I soaked the seed for 24 hours, followed by an approximately 90 day cold-moist stratification via winter sowing. My planting depth was approximately 1/4″ (6 mm). I was able to germinate a single tree in 2023, which sprouted in late Spring.

Seedling of a Black Cherry tree that I germinated.

Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases associated with Black Cherry

Pollinators

Flowers of Black Cherry trees are pollinated by flies, native bees, and honeybees[2]. In addition to pollination, Black Cherry hosts over 450 species of moth and caterpillar[3]. This fact alone gives a strong argument that Black Cherry is one of the most important native trees for wildlife, second only to Oak.

Pests

Black Cherry is attacked by a number of pests and diseases. The most damaging pest for defoliation is the Eastern Tent Caterpillar and the Cherry Scallop Shell moth[1]. The infestations of these pests are typically infrequent but can be quite heavy. They reduce growth and health of the tree, and if occur several years in a row can be fatal.

Various beetles, borers, and miners can cause damage to the timber, causing gum defects. There are also several species that can injure terminal shoots of Black cherry seedlings that result in stem deformity such as Archips spp[1].

Deer and Rabbits

Deer and rabbits will feed on Black Cherry seedlings[1][2]. These will heavily reduce the branches on young saplings. Deer browsing kills more seedlings/saplings of Black Cherry than any other factor.

Young trees should be protected with tree shelters, caged, or some other barrier. A deer rabbit repellent, Liquid Fence, can make the foliage/branches unpalatable, although it is difficult to maintain applications in Winter. Plastic tree shelters 48″ tall are by far the best method of protection.

Porcupines

In the wild, porcupines are known to kill young trees via girdling by eating the bark[1]. Damage from porcupines will also create pathways for fungus to enter the tree.

Livestock

Twigs, leaves, bark, and seeds of Black Cherry are toxic to livestock and horses[10]. And wilted leaves that fall from Black Cherry, or from freshly pruned limbs will contain cyanic acid[7]. This is harmful, and can be toxic to livestock. However it does not effect deer.

Dogs and Cats

Leaves, seeds, and twigs of Black Cherry are toxic to dogs, cats, and horses[11].

Disease

For disease, a fungus commonly known as Cherry Leaf Spot can harm the tree. This is mainly a concern of seedlings, as this can be fatal if severe or unchecked. In general, foliar disease is uncommon though.

Leaf spot on Black Cherry

Black knot is a fungus that causes rough, elongated black swellings (similar to burls) along the stem. Small wigs or branches can be killed within a year after infection. Large swellings occur along the trunks of larger trees can happen, destroying the value of lumber of the tree.

Where you can buy Black Cherry

Black Cherry is not typically sold in big-box nurseries. But it can be purchased at specialty nurseries that deal in Native Plants & trees. You can find native plant nurseries near you on our interactive map. Limited quantities also may be available from state department of natural resources.

Growing Black Cherry for lumber or fruit

For a long term investment, Black Cherry trees can be grown to eventually harvest into high quality logs in the proper environment. Trees within the Allegheny or Poconos plateau, where commercially valuable stands exist have a cool, temperate climate that is somewhat moist with 36-42″ of annual rainfall[4]. Mature specimens (80′) can yield excellent lumber or veneer, and can be quite valuable for future generations. In the intervening years, fruits can be harvested for use of making jams, jellies, and used to flavor liquors. With the huge interest in craft distilleries, this could prove to be a potential market.

A Black Cherry plantation can be planted on suitable open locations with an initial spacing of 8’x14′ grid[6]. A tight grid such as this will eventually limit sunlight penetrating the canopy, which will shade the trunks. This will in-turn result in straight trees that are mostly limb free except a the crown, which will make for more valuable lumber.

Prune trees in Spring by rubbing off new sprouts by hand while wearing gloves, and remove codominant leaders and unwanted limbs in Fall when insect activity has ceased.

In roughly 20 years, every other tree should be removed via thinning. This will reduce competition, and greatly enhance the height and girth of the remaining trees. For the trees that are removed, the trunks can be sold for wood turners & green woodworkers.

Growing Cherry for lumber in a wild setting

One can increase the number of quality trees naturally in a forest if a number of seedlings are naturally. This strategy is dependent on the canopy not becoming dominated by other tall species such as Maple and Oak. Do this by removing the overstory by 50%, and then allow new seedlings to establish naturally. Plan on thinning them every 5-10 years to increase the health and vigor of saplings[2].

Uses of Black Cherry

Garden Uses

The Black Cherry can make for a handsome shade or landscaping tree for residential or commercial settings. It is highly adaptable and would be suitable for most locations within it’s native range.

It also is great as a border tree for forests where it will receive sun, and won’t be out-competed by taller species such as Maple or Oak.

Food

The cherries can be eaten raw, dried, or used as an ingredient in jelly, jam, or pies. It has also been used for flavoring whiskey, rum, and other liquors. If you’ve heard of Cherry Bounce liquor, well, historically Black Cherries were used to flavor it[2].

Black Cherry lumber

The wood of Black Cherry logs can make great lumber if the tree is straight and large. As the lumber ages, it will change in color and sheen, developing a rich luster.

But even smaller logs of Black Cherry and limbs can be turned into bowls, carved into spoons, and be used to make pens or scientific instruments.

Medicinal Uses

Over 100 uses of Black Cherry have been documented for fourteen different Tribes[12]. Many used the cherries for food, and others for medicine. Most medicinal uses involved the bark. Some of these uses include the following:

  • Infusion of bark was used for colds, coughs, and fevers/chills
  • An infusion of bark or berries was made with honey to treat coughs. It is noted that if it went stale it would be poisonous.
  • Bark was used to treat diarrhea, and as a ‘blood medicine’
  • Root bark was used for ulcers and sores
  • Powdered root was applied to burns
  • Boiled fruit was used for bloody stool
  • Bark was added to whiskey to treat measles
  • Wood was used for lumber, carving
  • Fruit was eaten raw for food, dried for winter use
  • Tea was made from young twigs
  • Ripe cherries were used to make whiskey

Final Thoughts

The Black Cherry tree is a tall, showy, and beautiful native tree with a nice shape. It is incredibly important to wildlife from pollinators feeding on nectar/pollen, to some of the hundreds of species of moth/butterfly that are hosted by it. Also we can’t forget all the animals that like to eat the fruit.

The lumber is highly valuable and sought after by woodworkers and furniture makers, and the fruit is also useful to humans for pies/jams/jelly, and flavoring whiskey or other liquors.

Overall, this tree should be grown more in residential settings. It grows quickly when young, and makes for a showy Spring display with it’s white flowers. It can be a great alternative to commonly planted exotic ornamentals such as the Bradford Pear tree.

Find more native trees here

References:

[1] – Marquis, David A. “Prunus serotina Ehrh. black cherry.” Silvics of North America 2 (1990): 594-604.

[2] – Nesom, Guy, Guala Gerald. ‘Black Cherry Prunus serotina Ehrh.‘ Plant Guide, USDA NRCS. Feb 2003. Accessed 21NOV2023.

[3] – Tallamy, Douglas W., and Kimberley J. Shropshire. “Ranking lepidopteran use of native versus introduced plants.” Conservation Biology 23.4 (2009): 941-947. Accessed 22NOV2023.

[4] – ‘Black Cherry‘, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. American Woods –FS 229. 1971.

[5] – Prunus Serotina Ehrh. Black Cherry. USDA NRCS. Accessed 21NOV2023.

[6] – – Barkley, Yvonne C. Black Cherry. Alternative Tree Crops Information Series No. 3, University of Idaho College of Natural Resources. 2007. Accessed 22NOV2023.

[7] – Phartyal, Shyam S., Sandrine Godefroid, and Nico Koedam. “Seed development and germination ecophysiology of the invasive tree Prunus serotina (Rosaceae) in a temperate forest in Western Europe.” Plant Ecology 204 (2009): 285-294. Accessed 24NOV2023.

[8] – U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. 1948. Asimina triloba (L.) Dunal, pawpaw, p. 92. In: Woody plant seed manual. U.S. Dept. Agr., Washington, D.C., Misc. Publ. 654. Accessed 17NOV2023.

[9] – Esen, Derya, et al. “Effects of different pretreatments on germination of Prunus serotina seed sources.” Journal of Environmental Biology 28.1 (2007): 99-104. Accessed 24NOV2023.

[10] – H. A. Stephens. Poisonous plants of the central United States. The Regents Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1980, 165 pp.

[11] – ‘Black Cherry‘. Toxic and Non-Toxic Plant List. ASPCA. Accessed 25NOV2023.

[12] – Prunus Serotina, North American Ethnobotany Database. Accessed 24NOV2023.

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over 10 years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! You may have seen some of my videos I create on our YouTube channel, GrowitBuildit (more than 10 million views!). You can find my channel here: https://youtube.com/@growitbuildit Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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