Black Cherry - Prunus serotina
Native to the eastern half of the United States, black cherry is a common tree in many areas. Fragrant white flowers in the spring followed by small purple fruit that is relished by wildlife are just two reasons to plant this tree.
While not a specimen tree, black cherry is suited to a naturalistic area or the perimeter of a suburban yard. With very few pests or diseases, it should be considered by butterfly gardeners if they have adequate space.
Importance as a butterfly nectar source: Black cherry is not used as a nectar source.
Importance as a caterpillar food source: Wild cherry trees provide many butterfly species with caterpillar food.
- Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar eggs are laid individually on top of wild cherry leaves. Young caterpillars which resemble bird droppings may also be found on top of leaves.
- Red-spotted Purple caterpillar eggs are laid individually at the tips of red cherry leaves. Caterpillars eat the leaves on either side of the leaf midrib.
- Coral Hairstreak caterpillar eggs are laid on the trunk of the tree. The caterpillars feed at night on wild cherry flowers and fruit.
The following article originally appeared in Butterfly Gardener (Vol. 15, Issue 2, Summer 2010). NABA member Lenora Larson has graciously allowed us to reprint it here.
By Lenora Larson
What if you were limited to only one tree in your life as a butterfly gardener? Black Cherry has many virtues, including caterpillar foodplant for two of our most beautiful butterflies. The Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucus, soars at the crown of this 80 foot tree. And the poorly named Red-spotted Purple, Limenitis arthemis astyanax nectars its orange-spotted azure blue self near the ground.
This member of the rose family has many names: Black Cherry, Rum Cherry, Wild Cherry, Wild Black Cherry, American Wild Cherry, etc. A rose by any other name? The Latin name, Prunus serotina, ensures proper identity and good communication among gardeners. Fortunately, the tree’s distinctive appearance makes field identification less problematic. Picture a tall tree covered with long white racemes of fragrant flowers in the spring. The shiny green leaves turn brilliant yellow and rose in the fall. Identification is confirmed by the unusual bark. The NABA website describes the bark of a mature tree as looking like “thick, burnt potato chips”. In contrast, young trees have smooth gray bark while saplings and small branches have smooth, shiny reddish bark with horizontal raised lines, the lenticels.
Crush the bark, stems, leaves, seeds, and roots for the faint smell of almonds. All contain almond-scented cyanogenic glycosides that produce poisonous hydrogen cyanide when eaten. You may remember the tragic mare and foal deaths in May of 2001, caused by grazing on bluegrass contaminated by the droppings of eastern tent caterpillars that were devouring cherry leaves. Consequently, extension agents warn farmers not to pasture livestock in areas with overhanging cherry trees. Our caterpillars take advantage of this toxicity and transfer it to themselves by sequestering the cyanogenic compounds in their bodies.
A wide-spread native, Black Cherry adapts to temperatures from zone 3 to zone 9. This rapid grower flourishes in full sun and tolerates a wide range of soil and moisture conditions from Ontario south to Florida and west to Kansas, as well as Texas and Arizona with populations in Mexico and Guatemala. In an ironic twist, Black Cherry was transplanted as an ornamental to Europe. It quickly escaped and naturalized, reversing the usual pattern of rampant European weeds naturalizing our shores.
Even though it is a prolific self-sower, finding a source can be difficult—go online. Big box stores and most local nurseries rarely carry Black Cherry trees and sneer when I ask. While landscape designers might choose a fancy cultivar, the Black Cherry ‘species’ will greatly increase your chances for success because cultivated cherries are plagued by many diseases and storm damage. Never would I be cynical, but purchasing a fancy cultivar can improve a store’s bottom line with the sale of pesticides, fungicides and replacement trees. Once again, choosing native plants benefits both the butterflies and your wallet!
Black Cherry is an important source of highly prized cherry wood and veneers for floors and cabinet-making. Unlike its cousins, the peaches and nectarines, it is not a human food source. The small black cherries are too bitter for humans, but eagerly consumed by birds. The seeds spread and germinate wherever birds fly, making the tree a pioneer species for re-forestation.
Lenora Larson gardens and hosts butterflies in the cruel winds and clay soil of Eastern Kansas.
|USDA Hardiness Zone||
40 to 80 feet
30 to 50 feet
Well drained, can withstand slightly dry conditions
Eastern tent caterpillars can deform trees, deer may browse younger trees
Native Range for Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)