”’Also known as”’: Sweet Cherry, Mazzard or Gean
It is native throughout the UK and Europe, except the far north, and Western Asia. It grows best in full sunlight and fertile soil.
Prunus avium is a deciduous tree growing to 15–32 m (49–105 ft) tall, with a trunk up to 1.5 m (4.9 ft) in diameter. Young trees show strong apical dominance with a straight trunk and symmetrical conical crown, becoming rounded to irregular on old trees. Wild Cherry trees can live for up to 60 years.
- Bark – Reddish-brown in younger trees becoming silvery, purplish, grey as the tree matures. Clearly visible, large horizontal lenticels, becoming rough. Bark can sometimes peel off in strips, similar to Birch. Can also become more fissured and gnarly.
- Twigs – Young shoots, waxy, hairless, becoming reddish-brown. Buds along the length and a cluster of terminal buds.
- Buds – Orangey-brown, egg-shaped, bluntly pointed, obvious scales, around 5mm.
- Leaves – Arranged alternately, oval, green and toothed with pointed tips, measuring 6–15cm with two red glands on the stalk at the leaf base. They fade to orange and deep crimson in autumn.
- Flowers – Cherry trees are hermaphrodite, meaning the male and female reproductive parts are found in the same flower, in April. Flowers are cup-shaped with five white petals, yellowish stamen, and measure 8-15mm across. They hang in clusters of 2-6.
- Fruits – After pollination by insects, the flowers develop into globular, hairless deep red cherries (drupes) 1-2 cm across. Each fruit contains a single hard-shelled stone 8–12 mm long, 7–10 mm wide and 6–8 mm thick, grooved along the flattest edge; the seed (kernel) inside the stone is 6–8 mm long.
Pictures throughout the year
Fruit – raw or cooked. It can be sweet or bitter but it is not acid. The fruit can be cooked in pies etc or used to make preserves. The fruit contains about 78% water, 8.5 – 14% sugars. An edible gum is obtained by wounding the bark.
The fruit stalks are astringent, diuretic and tonic. A decoction is used in the treatment of cystitis, oedema, bronchial complaints, looseness of the bowels and anaemia. An aromatic resin can be obtained by making small incisions in the trunk. This has been used as an inhalant in the treatment of persistent coughs. Although no specific mention has been seen for this species, all members of the genus contain amygdalin and prunasin, substances which break down in water to form hydrocyanic acid (cyanide or prussic acid). In small amounts this exceedingly poisonous compound stimulates respiration, improves digestion and gives a sense of well-being.
The spring flowers provide an early source of nectar and pollen for bees, while the cherries are eaten by birds including the blackbird and song thrush, as well as mammals such as the badger, wood mouse, yellow necked mouse and dormouse.
The foliage is the main food plant for caterpillars of many species of moth, including the cherry fruit and cherry bark moths, the orchard ermine, brimstone and short cloaked moth.
Mythology and Symbolism
In Highland folklore, wild cherry had mysterious qualities, and to encounter one was considered auspicious and fateful.
How we use cherry
Traditionally cherries were planted for their fruit and wood, which was used for making cask hoops and vine poles. The sticky resin from bark wounds was thought to promote a good complexion and eyesight, and help to cure coughs; and was chewed as a substitute for chewing gum.
A green dye can also be prepared from the plant.
These days cherry wood is used to make decorative veneers and furniture. The wood is hard, strong and honey-coloured, and can be polished to a good shiny brown colour. Wild cherry has many cultivars and is a popular ornamental tree in gardens. The wood burns well and produces a sweetly scented smoke, similar to the scent of its flowers.
Although no specific mention has been seen for this species, it belongs to a genus where most, if not all members of the genus produce hydrogen cyanide, a poison that gives almonds their characteristic flavour. This toxin is found mainly in the leaves and seed and is readily detected by its bitter taste. It is usually present in too small a quantity to do any harm but any very bitter seed or fruit should not be eaten. In small quantities, hydrogen cyanide has been shown to stimulate respiration and improve digestion, it is also claimed to be of benefit in the treatment of cancer. In excess, however, it can cause respiratory failure and even death.
The fruits ripen from July to August and can be picked straight from the tree. It usually involves some climbing!
Sour cherry (Prunus cerasus), compared to this, wild cherry fruits are on longer stalks. (Prunus padus), and Plum cherry (Prunus cerasifera) Identified in winter by oval shaped buds in clusters on winter twigs.
- Tree & Plant ID Course from Foundation Bushcraft – http://identificationmasterclass.com/
- Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prunus_avium
- Woodland Trust – https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/native-trees/wild-cherry/
- Plants for a future – http://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Prunus+avium