Common Trees of New Hampshire and the North Woods -- Black Cherry

  • Sample Location: Swamps near Dodge Pond in Lyman
  • Scientific Name: Prunus serotina

The black cherry tree is widely distributed in the eastern half of North America.  It grows everywhere in the United States east of the Mississippi River, except for the lower portion of that river valley itself, far northern Maine, and south of Lake Okeechobee in Florida.  It can also be found in the Canadian Maritimes, the Midwest as far west as eastern Kansas and Oklahoma, and eastern Texas.  There is even a second population that follows the high elevations from central Arizona and New Mexico, all the way into southern Mexico and Guatemala.   

Black cherry is a staple in the central hardwood forests, where it requires slight (about 60%) shade in order for the seeds to germinate, but must then have full sun in order for the new seedlings to survive.  If these conditions are met, in addition to a generally moist soil, then black cherry can be one of the quickest growing trees in the Northeast, often averaging 18 inches of height growth per year, with 36 inches not being uncommon and up to six feet possible with fertilization.  Because of the tree’s need for slight shade during germination, and the seed’s inability to be transported by wind, the best method for regenerating a black cherry stand is to use the shelterwood method of harvest, which involves cutting the majority of trees in the stand, but leaving a select few desirable trees to act as shelter and seed-source to the next crop of trees.  When the new seedlings are firmly established, the overstory trees can then be removed, which will provide the direct sunlight that cherry requires. 

Black cherry is susceptible to a number of pests, though very few result in tree mortality, unless the tree is repeatedly exposed.  The eastern tent caterpillar is a common defoliating insect, as is the cherry scallop shell moth.  Like most Prunus species, black cherry is susceptible to the black knot fungus, which is a fungus that grows on twigs, small branches, and occasionally on larger branches and stems, where it can seriously effect timber value, and even kill the tree in some cases.  Due to their shallow root systems, black cherry trees can easily be blown down in severe windstorms, and other environmental stresses include fire and flood, neither of which can be tolerated by this thin-barked tree.  A final stress to black cherry trees are deer and rabbits, which will eat seedlings, and small mammals such as porcupines, mice, and voles, which will eat the bark and create entry points for fungal diseases such as root rot.

Despite its slight susceptibility to the hazards listed above, black cherry is an exceptionally valuable tree, especially in the Allegheny Plateau region of western Pennsylvania and New York State, where it typically reaches its best form.  The wood of black cherry is extremely strong, nearly as hard as hard (sugar) maple, and has a beautiful orange to red color that becomes darker with age.  Black cherry has been popular with woodworkers since Colonial times.  It was sometimes referred to as New England mahogany because of its similarity to this expensive tropical wood.  Today, it is common as a furniture wood when the woodworker is trying to replicate an early-American look and is a popular wood for high-end cabinetry.  In all cases, it is usual to see cherry finished dark to bring out the wood’s red tints, and because of this, may be less popular in new construction, which tends to favor a lighter aesthetic, more easily achieved with hard maple or birch.  Drawbacks to cherry wood include its tendency to form gum spots, small patches of dark resin caused by the tree’s repairing itself after a boring insect attack.  These may be considered character by the typical woodworker, and do not detract from timber value, but veneer buyers will tend to select against logs with a high level of gum defects.  Black cherry wood is also easily burned when using power tools, requiring a relatively high level of operator experience to ensure a quality finished product.

In addition to its wood, black cherry provides a valuable source of food for wildlife in the form of a small reddish black berry.  Livestock, however, should be kept away from black cherry trees because the leaves and twigs contain a reasonably high level of cyanide, which becomes more concentrated in wilted leaves.  White-tailed deer, however, are able to eat cherry foliage with no adverse effects.  Humans have imitated wildlife, and black cherry is one of the most easily recognizable edible fruits in the wild.  The fruit can be eaten fresh, but is much bitterer than domestic cherries and is usually turned into a jam or jelly.  Early Appalachian settlers also used black cherry to flavor imported rum, thus giving the tree another common name of “rum cherry.”  Tree identification  Wood Magazine article  Another article on cherry wood by Purdue University  Silvics Manual page  Description of black knot fungus


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