Black Cherry wood is prized for its attractive color, but Cherry is surprisingly common in Ohio
forests and most of the Eastern US. Black Cherry is not the tree used for pies and pastries, nor is
it the cherry widely used in landscaping, known for its spring blossoms. But it does have attractive
flowers in the spring, and its highly recognizable bark will make your winter walks much more
Black Cherry leaves are not especially distinctive. Like most Ohio trees, the leave arrangement is
alternate, simple, meaning that the leaves (and twigs) are not directly across from each other and
they are attached to the tree one-by-one. Compound leaves have leaflets in consistent groups of 3,
5, 7, etc., on the same stem. Cherry leaves are 2 to 4 inches long, lanceolate (lance-shaped), i.e.,
like an oval with pointed ends, and finely toothed. The crushed leaves and bark are said to have a
cherry-like odor (for me, a bitter taste but no odor). The mature tree reaches a height of
approximately 80 feet, making it Ohio’s largest cherry, and the only one used for lumber. Ohio’s
Champion Black Cherry tree, located in Scioto County, has a height of 89 feet, a crown width of
58 feet, and a trunk circumference of 235 inches (6.2 feet in diameter).
Black Cherry’s most recognizable feature is its bark, often described as looking like burnt potato
chips, and consists of nearly black, 1 to 3-inch plates. Closer examination reveals the presence of
horizontal bands of holes known as lenticels, which are said to aid in gas exchange. The bark of
juvenile Cherry trees has conspicuous lenticels, but is smooth, as it has not yet broken into plates.
Readers of this column know that I especially enjoy recognizing trees by their bark. Leaves are
highly distinctive on some trees, but not others, and they’re difficult or impossible to recognize on
tall trees and in winter. In contrast, bark is recognizable all year, but be careful – unlike leaves,
bark often changes as a tree matures, so it’s important to look at the whole tree when looking at
bark. The mature bark
near ground level on a large tree can be very different from the young bark in the upper branches Fortunately, I find that Black Cherry bark is remarkably consistent on all but the smaller saplings.
Black Cherry is one of many plants in the rose family, and accordingly, has flowers with five white
or pinkish petals, as do Apples, Hawthorns, Serviceberries, and many others. Within the rose
family, cherries are in the same genus, Prunus, as plums, peaches, apricots, and almonds, all of
which have a single stony pit instead of multiple seeds, like apples. Black Cherry is unusual in
having dozens of flowers on a raceme (stalk). Numerous large fruits like apples couldn’t share a
slender stalk. Prunus Serotina is monoecious, so all trees can potentially produce pollen and fruits,
whereas dioecious trees have male flowers that produce pollen, and female flowers that receive
pollen and produce fruits on separate trees. The species name, P. serotina is derived from the Latin
word for late, because Black Cherry blossoms later than its smaller relatives, such as Pin Cherry.
Black Cherry is best known for its fine-grained red wood that darkens with age. The Quakers, who
opposed ornamenting their furnishings, made extensive use of Cherry, because it provides beautiful
color and grain with no need for stain or paint. Cherry is moderately hard, with a Janka hardness
of 950 lbf and a dry density of 0.50 g/cc, compared to the medians of 1,050 lbf and 0.57 g/cc on
my table of 86 Ohio trees. Its moderate hardness makes it relatively easy to work with, but the
wavy grain can cause tearout, and it takes stain unevenly. Experience shows that Black Cherry
darkens considerably upon wetting, and a clear finish generally provides sufficient color, especially
after aging. Cherry burls are especially prized for veneers and decorative objects. Burls are bulges
in tree trunks and limbs with irregular swirling grain that form in response to damage from
insects, fungi, etc.
Black Cherry is the most valuable native wood for fine furniture and veneer, after Black Walnut.
Cherry’s fine grain and moderate hardness made it well suited for carving woodcuts once used for
printing. Its dimensional stability and ability to hold details also led to Cherry’s use in finely
dovetailed and finger-jointed boxes for jewelry and scientific instruments. And caskets. Donald
Culross Peattie’s A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America reports that,
“Daniel Boone made himself several Cherry caskets, and used occasionally to sleep in them, in his
old age, but gave up all but his last to needy corpses.” Cherry has low rot resistance, and is not
good for outdoor use, at least not when exposed to air.
According to the USDA Forestry Department’s Silvics of North America,
bark has medicinal properties. In the southern Appalachians, bark is stripped from young black
cherries for use in cough medicines, tonics, and sedatives. The fruit is used for making jelly and
wine. Appalachian pioneers sometimes flavored their rum or brandy with the fruit to make a drink
called ‘cherry bounce’. To this, the species owes one of its names-rum cherry”. Cherry is also used
for smoking foods, but it imparts a strong flavor disliked by some, including me.
The Native American Ethnobotany Database lists numerous medicinal uses for Black Cherry,
including the treatment for coughs, fevers, childbirth, diarrhea, worms, and skin ailments.
The book Cherry, by Constance L. Kirker and Mary Newman, describes how Native Americans
mixed sticky cherry sap with the ash of burnt animal fat to make an adhesive for attaching
arrowheads and knife blades to shafts and handles.
Not surprisingly, birds and other wildlife consume Black Cherry fruits. However, the pits and
leaves contain hydrogen cyanide, which is poisonous to livestock. Several times in recent years I’ve read newspaper accounts of Central Ohio horses dying from the consumption of cherry leaves. In
small quantities, this same hydrogen cyanide is the ingredient in Cherry medicines that relaxes
muscles and suppresses coughs.
There’s a rich body of folklore surrounding cherry, but most of it concerns Old World cherries, not
Black Cherry. It’s doubtful that George Washington cut down either one, but if he did, it was
probably not Black Cherry. And even if he really did throw a dollar across the Potomac, the feat
has never been repeated — a dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to. But we love Black Cherry all the
same. Look for the burnt potato-chip bark.