Black Cherry – for Wildlife, and People, too!

Black Cherry or Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is a bountiful tree for wildlife, and an important species for humans, too.  It blooms in spring, with a profusion of long, slender, densely packed flower clusters.

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in bloom

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in bloom

The flowers offer nectar and pollen as enticements to a variety of bee and fly species who need this food to survive. The insects become Black Cherry’s unsuspecting pollination partners.  In return for the food provided to these insect floral visitors, the flowers benefit by having some of their pollen transported on the insects’ bodies and deposited advantageously for pollination on other Black Cherry flowers.  Successful pollination will result in fruit that ripens in late summer and fall.

A broad spectrum of animals eat Black Cherry’s fleshy fruit. Many thrushes, woodpeckers, sparrows, bluebirds, tanagers, orioles, and Cedar Waxings are among the dozens of bird species that eat the fruit.

Wood Thrush

Wood Thrush

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Mammals as diverse as fox, squirrels, chipmunks, mice and even Black Bears eat Black Cherry’s fruit.

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

The fruit has evolved to lure animals to help Black Cherry spread its seeds. In exchange for the meal, the seeds are ‘dispersed’ after traveling through the animals’ digestive tracts.

Hundreds of insect species depend on Black Cherry for food, and in some cases, shelter.

In spring, finger galls caused by a mite (Eriophyes cerasicrumena) are conspicuous on Black Cherry leaves.  A gall is a plant’s reaction to being used as food and shelter by an insect.  The mite will feed on the tissue inside the gall until the mite matures and emerges from the gall.

Finger galls caused by a mite (Eriophyes cerasicrumena) on Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) leaves

Finger galls caused by a mite (Eriophyes cerasicrumena) on Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) leaves

You may be used to seeing Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies feeding on nectar from a variety of plants.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring at Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) flowers

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail nectaring at Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) flowers

But Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars have a completely different diet. They depend on the leaves of several woody plants species as their food source, including Black Cherry.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar in Black Cherry leaf

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar in Black Cherry leaf

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are just one of 456 species of butterflies and moths whose caterpillars eat the leaves of Black Cherry and other Prunus species, according to research from Douglas W. Tallamy and the University of Delaware.  These caterpillars are in turn an important source of food for birds, especially when they are raising their young.

Tufted Titmouse - one of many bird species that harvest caterpillars from Black Cherry

Tufted Titmouse – one of many bird species that harvest caterpillars from Black Cherry

Tent caterpillars favor Black Cherry, a practice that gardeners usually view unfavorably.

Tent Caterpillar egg mass in winter

Tent Caterpillar egg mass in winter

But even Tent caterpillars have redeeming qualities, since they are an important food source for both Yellow- and Black-billed Cuckoos.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Adult butterflies and moths may also become food for birds or other insects, and in the case of night-flying moths (including Tent caterpillars that survive to become adult moths), for bats.

In addition to the nectar offered by its flowers, Black Cherry provides nectar from glands on its leaf stems. These nectaries are not targeting pollinators.  Instead, they are there to lure a mercenary army of ants to protect the tree from herbivores, especially caterpillars. The nectaries entice ants to visit the trees for a drink.  While there, the ants may also help to keep the caterpillar population in check, since ants also need insect protein as part of their diet.

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in bloom

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in bloom

People benefit directly from Black Cherry trees.  In addition to the beauty of its flowers, fruits and foliage, Black Cherry’s wood is an important timber crop, primarily for use in furniture and cabinet making.  Black Cherry’s fruit is used to flavor brandies and to make a liqueur called cherry bounce.  The fruit is somewhat bitter, but with added sugar it can be used to make jellies.  Eating the raw fruit is not advisable, since the seeds can be toxic.  Medicinally, Black Cherry’s inner bark has been used in cough suppressants.

Black Cherry can grow to a maximum height of 80-100 feet (24-30 meters). Its range is primarily eastern North America, from Canada through the United States and south into Mexico, although it is an adaptable species and may also be found in some areas of the Pacific Northwest.

Providing beauty, timber, food and medicine for humans, food for birds, mammals, pollinators and hundreds of other insects, Black Cherry is among our most productive native trees.

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in bloom

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) in bloom

Related Posts

Will Work for Food – Extrafloral Nectaries

Resources

Eastman, John. The Book of Forest and Thicket.  1992.

Eiseman, Charley; Charney, Noah. Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates. 2010.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Hoffmann, David. Medical Herbalism.  2003.

Peterson, Lee Allen. A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America. 1977.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Tallamy, Douglas W. Bringing Nature Home, 2007,

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA Plant Database

 

11 thoughts on “Black Cherry – for Wildlife, and People, too!

  1. A beautiful tree in woodlots in Pennsylvania. Valuable too, so much so that timber pirates will sneak onto properties and cut them down and steal the lumber. Also targeted by the lumber pirates who offer to “manage” wood lots for people and literally “cherry” pick the most valuable trees like Black Cherry and Black Walnut.

  2. WOW!! Here are some fabulous photos of a few of my favorite things. . I have never seen a yellow billed cuckoo up close. Thanks for sharing your work. I use all these gems in my work at Silver Lake.

  3. One benefit I have noticed of the wild cherry is that it helps keep the birds out of my blueberries since the birds seem to prefer the wild cherries. Unfortunately the wild cherry season doesn’t last quite as long as my blueberry season.
    Nice pics, and I enjoyed the entry.

  4. Pingback: Black Cherry Trees for Wildlife – Wildlife Gardening Canada

  5. Pingback: Northern Prickly-ash | The Natural Web

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