Wild black cherry (Prunus serotina) is the only commercially important native American cherry tree. Developing tasty fruits that are normally snatched away by birds before humans have a chance, the black cherry was cultivated in England as early as 1629, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. Although woody plant expert Michael Dirr states it doesn't make a good tree choice for a tidy garden setting, it makes a good addition to naturalistic designs in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 4 though 9.
Wild black cherry naturally grows in the southeastern quarter of North America. Its habitat reaches from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick west to southern Quebec and Ontario into Michigan and eastern Minnesota and south to Iowa, eastern Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas, then east to central Florida. There are four natural varieties of this species that extend the natural range to include isolated areas of the American Southwest and higher elevations of Mexico and Central America.
Fast growing, black cherry matures 50 to 60 feet in height and 20 to 30 feet in width. This deciduous trees puts forth glossy dark-green leaves and in late spring many elongated clusters of fragrant white flowers. Fragrant and bowl-shaped, each blossom is pollinated by bees and thereafter becomes a round, edible fruit that ripens red to black. Fruits and foliage drop off in large numbers in summer and fall, making a large debris field in a garden.
Grow a wild black cherry in full sun, where it receives uninterrupted sunlight more than eight hours daily. They relish any fertile, deep soil that is moist year-round but does not flood after rains. The trees flower and fruit yearly, but particularly abundant fruit crops occur every three to four years.
The wood of wild black cherry is used particularly for furniture, paneling, professional and scientific instruments, handles and toys. Wild cherry syrup, a cough medicine, is made from the bark. Jelly and wine are prepared from the fruits.
This tree produces tremendous amounts of seeded, tasty fruits that songbirds eat. Their droppings scatter the seeds across the landscape, resulting in weedy saplings. The young twigs and mature leaves of black cherry contain trace amounts of cyanide and must not be chewed upon by humans and horse/cattle livestock. Tent caterpillars may defoliate trees in spring. While the tree flushes out new foliage, it does result in an unsightly tree for a few weeks.