How to Care for Bitter Cherry


Bitter cherry, or prunus emarginata, is a small tree that produces red, white or pink blooms and bitter fruits. The small fruit is extremely bitter to humans and inedible. The berries also contain trace amounts of cyanide, which can be fatal to humans. Birds, deer, squirrels, raccoons and other wildlife consume the berries without problems. Bitter cherry is natively found in wetland areas among dense forests. The fragrant blooms and pleasing appearance of the tree make it an excellent addition to any landscape.

Step 1

Purchase a bitter cherry tree from your local garden center in early spring or after the final frost. Look for a healthy plant with no traces of yellowing or wilting. Plant the tree as soon as you bring it home.

Step 2

Choose your plant's permanent location. Bitter cherry grows best in rich, wet soil and prefers full sunlight to shade. Placing your tree in a sunny area next to a pond or river will enhance the area's beauty and provide the tree with a native setting.

Step 3

Prepare the soil in the tree's location. Dig a hole that is slightly wider but only as deep as the tree's root ball. Mix a one-to-one ratio of compost or peat moss with the native soil and toss in a handful of coarse sand. Line the edges of the hole with the mixture. This will encourage the tree's root to spread out toward the nutritious lining.

Step 4

Separate the tree's roots and douse them with water if they are dry. Gently place the tree into the hole and fill the with the soil mixture. Firmly press the soil down, water thoroughly and wait until the soil settles. Cover any exposed roots.

Step 5

Add a two-inch layer of mulch around the tree at a diameter of two to three feet. This will improve the appearance of the tree and conserve extra moisture.

Step 6

Keep the tree's soil moist. Bitter cherry is known to grow in aquatic environments and prefers wet soil at all times. Allowing the soil to dry out for a short period will not harm the tree.

Step 7

Fertilize the tree with a balanced, slow-release mix every spring to maintain health. A phosphorus-rich fertilizer applied in early spring may increase the plant's blooms. Due to the tree's fast-growing and hardy nature, fertilization is rarely needed.

Step 8

Allow birds and deer to consume the tree's fruit. Wildlife pollinate the tree by eating the berries, allowing the seeds to grow out of the manure. However, heavy grazing by deer may damage the plant. Be mindful of the plant's appearance and take precautions if the berries are being completely stripped. Dusting the tree with cayenne pepper or hanging bags of human hair from the tree may ward off wildlife.

Step 9

Prune the tree during its winter dormancy. You need only to remove dead or broken branches along with any suckers or limbs growing out of shape. Clip the branches diagonally at the bud.

Step 10

Propagate the tree by collecting seeds from the berries. Collect as many seeds as possible, including any on the ground next to the tree. Wash any pulp or debris from the seeds. Allow them to dry in the sun before storing in an air-tight container in the coldest part of your refrigerator.

Tips and Warnings

  • Do not eat the berries of the tree. They extremely bitter, and the toxins in the fruit may be fatal to humans.

Things You'll Need

  • Shovel
  • Peat moss or compost
  • Coarse sand
  • Balanced, slow-release fertilizer
  • Pruning shears
  • Mulch


  • Plants For a Future: Prunus Emarginata
  • Index of Species: P. Emarginata
  • Plant Protocal for P. Emarginata (PDF)
Keywords: bitter cherry tree, hardy shrub, prunus emarginata

About this Author

Lily Obeck is a copywriter based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She writes for print, online, outdoor and broadcast marketing, with expertise in health, education and lifestyle topics. Obeck holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of North Texas and works as a part-time children's library assistant.