The largest cherry tree native to North America, black cherry (Prunus serotina) is an important food source for wildlife in the eastern United States and is the source for cherry wood lumber. A deciduous, fast-growing tree, it matures upwards of 60 to 90 feet tall and 30 to 50 feet wide. It grows in sunlit areas in regions where annual winter low temperatures range from -40 to +20 degrees F.
When the wild black cherry tree is young, it quickly grows upright at a rate of 4 to 8 feet per year according to the U.S. Forest Service, trying to reach for sunlight and out-compete other tree seedlings like those of maples. The young tree has a pyramid to cone-like shape in its branched canopy and as it ages becomes more oval-upright with drooping branch tips.
Black cherry trees typically are found growing in sunny opening in woodlands or waste areas alongside roads or abandoned sites. According to the U.S. Forest Service, they most often grow on very acidic soils (pH below 6.0) that are coarse in texture and lack fertility. You will likely not find a black cherry tree growing in a shaded forest, but they will grow in fertile soils, and often a mature tree will have many of its own seedlings sprouting up all around it in the landscape.
When leaves and flowers are absent, look at the tree's trunk and branches. The trunk bark is brown and scaling into rounded, saucerlike flakes. The branches are smooth and brown with cream-colored lenticels or flattened pores. Youngest twigs are slender, smooth and brown. On these twigs are sharply pointed leaf buds and scars that are arranged in an alternating pattern. If you chew on the twigs they will taste bitter.
Dark satiny green in color, each leaf is a wide oval 2 to 5 inches long with tiny serrations on the edges. Look at the leaf's underside, which will reveal a hairy midrib. The leaves are arranged alternately on the branches. In autumn the foliage attains yellow to orange colors before dropping away.
The fragrant white flowers of black cherry occur in mid- to late spring, often the month of May in North America. The 1/3-inch blossoms each have five rounded petals and a golden yellow center of stamens that attract insects for pollination. The flowers are borne in pendent spike clusters called racemes that are 4 to 6 inches long.
Pollinated blossoms develop into round fruits 1/3 inch in diameter in a branched cluster with many long, pinkish brown petiole stems. The fleshy fruits are green when developing and then turn maroon-pink, then red, and finally ripen to dark purple or black in August. They are edible. Songbirds frequently eat them and drop the seeds around the landscape in their droppings where they will germinate the following spring.