Wild Black Cherry
Rose family (Rosaceae)
Description: This native plant is a woody tree up to 80' tall. It has a central trunk at the base and a crown of leafy branches that is longer than wide. The tips of growing branches are green and glabrous, but they soon become reddish brown and woody. The bark of larger branches is relatively smooth and reddish brown. The lenticels (air pores) of this bark are conspicuously white and horizontally flattened. On older trees, the coarse bark of the trunk becomes brown-black and rough-textured. The smaller branches and twigs produce alternate leaves. The blades of these leaves are up to 6" long and 2" across; they are ovate, narrowly ovate, or lanceolate-ovate in shape and finely serrated along their margins. The tiny teeth of these margins curve inward. The upper surface of each leaf is green and glabrous, while the lower surface is light green. The lower surface is usually glabrous, but sometimes there are fine hairs along the central vein. The tip of each leaf blade is slender and acute, while its base is rounded or wedge-shaped. The slender petioles of the leaves are up to 1" long; each petiole has a pair of tiny nectaries near the leaf blade.
Elongated racemes of flowers are produced from short leafy branches; they are ascending, widely spreading, or descending (often the latter). Each raceme is 4-6" long and densely packed with flowers (see Close-up of Raceme). Each flower is ½" across, consisting of 5 white petals, 5 green sepals, 15-22 stamens, and a central pistil with a flattened stigma. The petals are obovate in shape and much longer than the sepals. The blooming period occurs from late spring to early summer and lasts about 2-3 weeks. Each flower is replaced by a globoid fleshy drupe about 1/3" across. Immature drupes are green, but they become dark red and finally purple-black at maturity during the fall. Each drupe contains a single stone with a smooth surface. The flesh of a mature drupe is sweet and slightly bitter. The root system consists of woody taproot. This tree spreads by reseeding itself.
Cultivation: Wild Black Cherry is fast-growing and adaptable. It prefers full sun to light shade, moist to slightly dry conditions, and fertile soil containing loam, clay-loam, or some rocky material. Too much shade from larger canopy trees will stunt the growth of Wild Black Cherry or even kill it.
Range & Habitat: Wild Black Cherry is common throughout Illinois; it occurs in every county (see Distribution Map). Habitats include deciduous woodlands (dominated by oak, basswood-maple, & others), open woodlands, woodland borders, savannas, limestone glades, fence rows, powerline clearances, vacant lots, and waste areas. Wild Black Cherry is a pioneer species that thrives on disturbance in wooded areas. It is one of the woody species that can invade prairies and meadows in the absence of fire.
Faunal Associations: The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract honeybees, bumblebees, Halictid bees, Andrenid bees, Syrphid flies, Blow flies, and miscellaneous other flies. These insects cross-pollinate the flowers. The extra-floral nectaries attract ants, which protect the leaves from some leaf-chewing insects. There are many insects that use Wild Black Cherry as a source of food, particularly the leaves. This includes the caterpillars of the butterflies Limenitis arthemis astyanax (Red-Spotted Purple), Strymon titus (Coral Hairstreak), and Papilio glaucus (Tiger Swallowtail). The caterpillars of many moth species feed on Wild Black Cherry; some of these species are listed in the Moth Table. Other insects that feed on Wild Black Cherry and other cherries (Prunus spp.) include the flea beetles Altica ignita and Crepidodera violacea, the leaf beetles Eusattodera thoracicus and Pyrrhalta cavicollis, and the sawfly larvae of Caliroa cerasi, Onycholyda luteicornis, and Dimorphopteryx abnormis. The fruit of Wild Black Cherry is an important source of food to many upland gamebirds and songbirds (see the Bird Table for a listing of these species); the fruit is also eaten by the Black Bear, Gray Fox, Red Fox, Eastern Chipmunk, tree squirrels (Red, Gray, Fox), Opossum, Raccoon, and White-Footed Mouse. These animals spread the seeds to new areas. White-Tailed Deer browse on the leaves and twigs, even though they contain toxic cyanide compounds. In general, the value of Wild Black Cherry to wildlife is very high.
Photographic Location: Along a fence row behind the webmaster's apartment complex in Urbana, Illinois.
Comments: Some people regard Wild Black Cherry as weedy and aggressive, but its value to wildlife is exceptional. This is the largest native cherry in Illinois. The wood of this species is used in the construction of fine furniture. Wild Black Cherry should not be confused with the cultivated Black Cherry (Prunus avium), which has larger drupes (½" across or more) that are sold in supermarkets. This latter species is native to Eurasia; its flowers and fruits are arranged in short drooping umbels, rather than long racemes. Another native cherry in Illinois is Prunus virginiana (Choke Cherry). This species is a small tree or shrub up to 20' tall. The leaf margins of this species have pointed teeth that spread outward, rather than curving inward. As the common name suggests, the fruit of Chokecherry is astringent and bitter. Two other native species, Prunus pensylvanica (Pin Cherry) and Prunus susquehanae (Sand Cherry, Beach Plum), also produce cherry-like fruits. In Illinois, they are encountered primarily in sandy areas along Lake Michigan.