Black cherry (Prunus serotina), also known as wild black cherry, rum cherry and mountain black cherry, is found throughout most of the eastern United States. Most at home in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and in New York State, it can be found growing on a wide variety of sites: all those except for ones that display extreme wet or dry conditions. Common in the Catskills, black cherry can be seen growing at altitudes up to 3,200 feet and scattered throughout the valleys. Like other species, black cherry tells us something about the history of that forest. Being shade intolerant, it prefers to grow in open sunlight, and its presence tells us of a past disturbance that opened up or cleared the forest of the over-story allowing more sunlight to hit the forest floor. Because disturbances might include windstorm, logging or fire, this cherry is often found growing in areas that were once open pasture, or high up on ridges that are exposed to high winds.
Forest historians are not the only ones who value this species. Native Americans would boil the inner bark to make a concoction to treat colds, headaches, bronchitis, chest pains and the common cough. In fact, cherry extract is still used in commercial cough syrups. The pioneers would mix the cherries with brandy or rum in order to make cherry bounce, which provides a clue to the tree’s lesser known common name, rum cherry.
Today, cherry is known mostly for the value of its wood. To understand this one should know what a board foot is: a piece of wood measuring 1 inch thick by 1 foot long by 1 foot wide. A black cherry can be worth anywhere from $50 to $7,000 per thousand board feet. A tractor-trailer typically carries 5 thousand board feet of logs. In the Catskills, healthy black cherry may bring $600 per thousand board feet; each board foot would be worth 60 cents. However, these figures are dependent on variables such as transportation costs, grade of wood and market forces. In the Catskills, for example, the quality is lacking because the best ones have been removed or harvested through high grading practices.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century that black cherry wood became desirable by wood-workers and consumers alike. Once considered a poor substitute for mahogany, it is now the most valuable wood products species in North America. Because it draws such a high price, many landowners, foresters and wood products companies spend millions of dollars trying to perpetuate the species.
The wood is strong, durable and bends easily, is comparatively free from checking and warping, and does not shrink much. Woodworkers desire it because it saws cleanly, but it is difficult to work with hand tools. Its color is what stands out the most for wood connoisseurs. Its heartwood is aromatic, and has a reddish color that darkens over time. For this reason, it is most often used in cabinetry. Cherry is also used in making fine furniture, flooring, doors, stair posts, handrails, gunstocks, piano actions, wall paneling, and caskets.
Even though this tree likes to grow in areas exposed to sunlight, seedlings require some shade so that the soil is able to retain moisture during dry periods. Leaf litter, as opposed to compacted mineral soil, provides a more moist and desirable condition for seeds to germinate in as well. It is important that foresters and loggers prevent erosion and compaction from timber harvesting in order to perpetuate the tree they value so highly. Once established and growing, seedlings need all the light they can get, just as their older counterparts do. If provided adequate sunlight, cherry usually does not have any difficulty becoming a dominant species. If the tree is overtopped by other trees’ canopies, it will become suppressed and die.
The fruit is a purplish-black round berry approximately a half-inch in diameter found growing on long, slender clusters. Each berry consists of a single seed and is connected by a short stem. Humans are not the only life forms that highly value this tree. The fruit, which has a bitter taste, ripens in August and September and provides high amounts of fat, fiber and protein for black bear, fox, squirrels, chipmunks, opossum, raccoons, white footed mice, and over 40 different bird species. Black cherry is highly dependent on wildlife to distribute its seed. Without the birds and animals, the seed would simply drop from the parent tree and then become a seedling that dies under the shade of the same tree that gave it life. Birds eat the seeds and regurgitate them somewhere else. Bears and other animals leave the seeds behind in their scat. In pursuit of nectar, a variety of bees including honeybees help to pollinate the species. There are 200 species of moths and butterflies that are attracted to the cluster of white flowers that grow in May.
Unfortunately, some wildlife likes to browse on young cherry trees’ leaves and buds. Deer, especially, pose a forester’s greatest challenge in perpetuating black cherry. The forester uses countermeasures such as erecting 5-foot plastic tubes around young seedlings, called tree shelters, or by providing a natural shelter by leaving the tops of cut trees where they fall on the ground in order to help hide the vulnerable seedlings. Another life form that eats the leaves of this tree to its own detriment is livestock. These animals have been poisoned by grazing on wilting cherry leaves that contain a cyanide compound.
Recognizing black cherry is easy if you know what to look for. Start with the bark. A young tree has smooth reddish-brown bark with distinctive horizontal lenticels. Through maturity, the tree’s bark changes into scales resembling burned corn flakes. The leaves are simple and have small teeth on the outside. The teeth curve inwards, slightly resembling a bird’s beak.
This is a special tree in the Catskills. It can grow 80 or more feet and live up to 150 years. It provides us with everything from cough syrup and a mixed rum beverage to food for wildlife, highest-quality furniture, and veneers.