Black Cherry Tree

The black cherry tree (Prunus serotina) is a very common tree found throughout Frederick County in hedgerows, along roadsides, fields, or any other disturbed areas that have abundant sunlight. The black cherry is known as a pioneer species, because it’s one of the first trees to colonize abandoned fields, and it needs plenty of sun to develop properly. This tree grows quickly, forming very rough, black-red bark that looks somewhat like corn flakes cereal. Cherries produce an attractive white flower in late April to May, and a green berry that turns dark purple-black in August. The fruit is not edible to humans without boiling in water, but many birds eagerly devour them. The leaves and twigs of cherry produce a substance containing cyanide, which can be poisonous to livestock and other animals.


Cherry trees are attacked by eastern tent caterpillar nearly every year, which build their silky nests in early April, often stripping the trees of their leaves. Despite this damage, the cherry tree always seems to bounce back. Frederick County forests contain other cherry trees, most notably domestic cherry varieties that escape captivity once birds eat their fruits and deposit the hard-coated seed at a different location. This bird deposition is the reason so many cherry trees grow beneath bird perches on utility wires and fence rows. There is also another fairly unusual cherry tree that might be present in our area, —the pin cherry (Prunus pennsylnanica) which is more common to the north. Pin cherries look a lot like black cherries, but their bark has a more silvery sheen compared to the more common variety. Black cherries were introduced to Europe as an ornamental, but quickly gained the status of an invasive exotic species.

The black cherry tree has very different characteristics, depending on whether it is growing in the southern or northern part of its range. Black cherries growing throughout most of Maryland tend to be short lived, smaller, and they often develop black knot canker and ring shake disease. For these reasons, these cherries are not highly sought after for lumber, although they make good firewood. Black cherries growing at more northern latitudes, like the Allegheny Plateau of Pennsylvania and Garrett County Maryland, on the other hand, tend to live longer, grow larger, and their deep red wood is a prized lumber used in fine woodworking and cabinetry.

Article by Mike Kay, FCFCDB member

Nature Note for 7/2/22