The black cherry (Prunus serotina) was one of the first trees that the English exported from the New World back to Europe, notes the "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees." Black cherry is an important tree for the wildlife within its ecosystem and extracts that come from the inner portion of the bark go into making cough syrup. Black cherry identification comes from knowing the tree's features.
The black cherry grows to about 60 feet high, with some able to reach 80 feet. The trunk is typically long and the branches form a dense canopy that has an oval appearance. When you crush black cherry twigs, leaves or bark, you will smell the familiar aroma of cherry. Look for black cherry trees in the eastern United States, from Maine to Florida and westward to the Great Plains. The tree exists along fence rows, near roadsides, in old fields and pastures and in moist hardwood forests.
Black cherry trees feature oblong leaves as long as 2 to 6 inches and as wide as an inch and a half. The foliage has a darker shade of green on its upper surface, with the underneath part of the leaf paler in color and somewhat fuzzy. The edge of these lance-shaped leaves have very fine teeth. Refrain from ever eating the leaves and/or twigs of black cherry. They contain hydrocyanic acid that combines with the acid in a person's stomach to form cyanide, a deadly toxin.
The flowers of the black cherry bloom in May in drooping clusters called racemes. The individual black cherry blossom is a third of an inch across and very fragrant. The white flowers are abundant on the branches, contain five petals and five sepals and are perfect (containing male and female parts).
Wood and Bark
The close-grained heartwood of the black cherry tree bears a striking resemblance to that of mahogany, making it a valuable asset; the wood goes into the making of tool handles, toys, paneling, furniture and even scientific instruments. The bark, states the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science, has three distinct phases that depend on the tree's age. The bark on a young black cherry is thin and a reddish-brown color, with horizontal slits known as lenticels. The bark develops furrows as the tree gets older and finally becomes black and quite thick on the oldest trees.
The fruit of the black cherry is a drupe, a fleshy mass that contains a hard core. The cherries are as wide as three-eighths of an inch and start dark red before finally ripening to an almost black tint. The cherries are edible for animals and people, with the juicy cherries tasting bitter. The fruits ripen by late summer and many people will use them to produce wines or preserves.