Cherry trees are notable for producing splashily beautiful flowers in the spring, deliciously edible fruit in the summer, and hard, strikingly grained and colored wood. In the United States, the cherry species that meets possesses all of these characteristics is the black cherry (Prunus serotina). It is the largest North American member of the genus Prunus, which also includes several small trees that are referred to as plums rather than cherries, and so the only decent lumber producer. Its fruit are not as sweet as those of the European P. avium (“sweet cherry”), but the taste is thought to have more character and they are therefore often used in liqueurs and added to ice cream. P. serotina‘s flowers are not the garish pink of the hybrids (P. sargentii X) and species (P. serrulata) that famously line the Potomac basin or haunt the public spaces and art of Japan, but their white racemes are abundant and a hallmark of spring.
Like a lot of trees, black cherries blossom as they leaf out. This means that when you look at a forested hillside in the Northeast in early May, amid the varying shades of green there will be bright explosions of white marking the locations of the various wild members of the rose family. In addition to the cherries and plums, the shadbush or serviceberry (Amelanchior spp.) also stand out at this time.
In the inland portions of the Northeast we have two other common cherries, both of which are smaller than P. serotina, and neither of which produce fruits that are particularly edible to humans, although birds love them. P. virginiana, or the chokecherry, is closely related to the black cherry, but only grows to 30 or 40 feet tall. The black cherry is a canopy species, albeit an early pioneering member, and can be 100 feet tall. Both bear the characteristic five-petaled white flowers of the rose family and these two species bear them in racemes. Their leaves two are similar, finely serrated and oblong with pointed tips, but P. serotina‘s are shinier and deep green on both sides, and P. virginiana leaves are broader. The fruit they produce is usually a purplish-black, but it is red before it ripens and chokecherries may remain red. Cherries are technically stone fruit (drupes) with a hard pit at the center, not berries.
Because they grow rapidly and can be bushy, chokecherries are planted en masse as screens and wind breaks. They aren’t fussy about where or how they are planted. In spite of its name, it does produce edible cherries. The later they are harvested, the sweeter they will be. You have to beat the birds to them though, as species like robins and waxwings love them. Deer love to graze on all parts of the plant, so if you don’t want to attract deer, don’t plant them. Furthermore, the stems of the cherries and the leaves are toxic to humans, so make sure to clean them out of any harvest before you make something with it. In large quantities the leaves are toxic to cattle and sheep. The toxicity is caused by a compound that is metabolized into cyanide.
The other small northeastern cherry is the pin cherry (P. pensylvanica), which is even weedier than the chokecherry. Its leaves are serrated, but narrow to the point of being lanceolate. The flowers are the familiar white, but they are borne in corymbs or umbels. The cherries are bright red when mature and have an acidic taste, but the trees are known to produce them in great abundance.
This is a pioneer woody plant, being among the first move back into clear cuts and strip mined areas. They are given credit for keeping nutrients in the soil by preventing them from leaching away in runoff. They can attain the height of 35 to 50 feet and do so quite rapidly.
When they are young all of these cherries have smooth brown bark with raised horizontally-oriented lenticels that resemble those of the birches. As they mature, however, the P. serotina bark becomes dark and scaly and is said to resemble black potato chips. P. virginiana bark becomes scaly, but remains brown and the scales are larger and more elongate than those of P. serotina. P. pensylvanica bark is reddish brown in maturity and appears more tight-fitting than that of the other two species with a more imbricate appearance.