Bitter Cherry (Emarginata)

The Bitter Cherry (Emarginata) is generally described as a perennial tree or shrub. This is native to the U.S. (United States) has its most active growth period in the spring . The Bitter Cherry (Emarginata) has green foliage and inconspicuous white flowers, with an abuncance of conspicuous red fruits or seeds. The greatest bloom is usually observed in the mid spring, with fruit and seed production starting in the summer and continuing until fall. Leaves are not retained year to year. The Bitter Cherry (Emarginata) has a long life span relative to most other plant species and a moderate growth rate. At maturity, the typical Bitter Cherry (Emarginata) will reach up to 80 feet high, with a maximum height at 20 years of 25 feet.

The Bitter Cherry (Emarginata) is not commonly available from nurseries, garden stores and other plant dealers and distributors. It can be propagated by bare root, container, seed. It has a slow ability to spread through seed production and the seedlings have medium vigor. Note that cold stratification is not required for seed germination and the plant cannot survive exposure to temperatures below -23°F. has medium tolerance to drought and restricted water conditions.

Uses of : Landscaping, Medicinal, Culinary, etc.

Ethnobotanic: The edible fruits are bitter and best used in jams. A green and dark gray dye was obtained from the fruits and leaves. The bark was used for making baskets that were watertight and resist decay (Moerman 1998). The thin outer bark was used to make mats, ropes, arrows, and as an ornament on bows (Ibid.).

Several native North American tribes used bitter cherry to treat a variety of complaints. An infusion of the bark was used in the treatment of tuberculosis (Moerman 1998). A decoction of the root and inner bark was taken daily as a treatment for heart troubles (Ibid.). An infusion of the bark, combined with crab apple (Malus spp.), was used as a cure all tonics in treating colds and various other ailments (Ibid.). An infusion of this species’ rotten wood was used as a contraceptive.

Wildlife: Prunus emarginata is a valuable species for elk, mule deer, and black bears. The fruits are eaten by small mammals, rodents, and various birds. This species is preferred by sheep and cattle.

Agroforestry: Bitter cherry is used in forested riparian buffers to help reduce stream bank erosion, protect aquatic environments, enhance wildlife, and increase biodiversity.

General Characteristics

General: Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata) is a native, deciduous shrub, four to twelve feet high, or sometimes a small tree up to thirty feet high (McMinn 1939). The leaves are oblong to oval, fine toothed, and rounded at the tip. The flowers are fragrant, blooming between April and May, in clusters of five to twelve. The bark has a generally smooth dark brown surface marked by horizontal light gray interrupted hands and by rows of oblong orange colored lenticels (Sargent 1961).

Required Growing Conditions

Bitter cherry often forms extensive thickets on moist slopes and along stream banks in the transition and Canadian life zones in the coast ranges, the mountains of southern California and in the Sierra Nevada (McMinn 1939). It extends northward to Idaho and British Columbia and eastward to Nevada and Arizona (Ibid.). For current distribution, please consult the Plant profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.

Adaptation Prunus emarginata is frequently abundant in very dense; uniform stands, on steep, rocky slopes, and can be found along valley bottoms next to streams (Mozingo 1987). It establishes easily in disturbed moist areas and prefers open sandy or gravelly sites. This species succeeds in full sun or partial shade but grows best in a sunny position. Bitter cherry does not tolerate much shade competition from other trees.

Cultivation and Care

Propagation from Seed: Seed is best sown as soon as it is ripe, in the fall, in an open frame on a seedbed (Heuser 1997). It is important to protect the seeds from mice or any seed-eating creatures. This species requires a period of two to three months cold stratification. The seeds can be slow to germinate, sometimes taking up to eighteen months. When the seedlings are large enough to handle, they can be placed into individual pots. Grow seedlings in an open frame or greenhouse their first winter and plant into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer of the following year.

Propagation from Softwood Cuttings: Cuttings should be done in the spring or early summer in the early morning. Take cuttings about five to ten centimeters long, just above the node. Put cuttings in plastic bags to prevent moisture loss (Heuser 1997). They must not be allowed to wilt. Trim the cuttings below the lowest node to remove the lower leaves leaving three or four at the tip (Ibid.). A rooting hormone maybe applied to improve rooting before planting. Insert the cuttings in the rooting medium up to half their length so the leaves don’t touch each other. The cuttings root in two to three weeks, after which they can be potted (Ibid.).

General Upkeep and Control

This species is a member of the genus that produces a poison hydrogen cyanide, which gives almonds a characteristic flavor. This toxin is mainly found in the seeds and leaves and has a bitter taste. Hydrogen cyanide can stimulate respiration and is beneficial in the treatment of cancer. It is also known to cause respiratory failure and death in some instances.

Plant Basics
Growth Rate Moderate
General Type Tree, Shrub
Growth Period Spring
Growth Duration Perennial
Lifespan Long
Plant Nativity Native to U.S.
Commercial Availability No Known Source
Physical Characteristics
Bloom Period Mid Spring
Displays Fall Colors No
Shape/Growth Form Thicket Forming
Drought Tolerance Medium
Shade Tolerance Intolerant
Height When Mature 80
Vegetative Spread None
Flower Color White
Flower Conspicuousness Yes
Fruit/Seed Abundance High
Fruit/Seed Seasonality Summer Fall
Seed Spread Rate Slow
Gardening Characteristics
Propagations (Ways to Grow) Bare Root, Container, Seed
Moisture Requirements Medium
Cold Stratification Required Yes
Minimum Temperature -23
Soil Depth for Roots 20
Toxic to Nearby Plants No
Toxic to Livestock No
After-Harvest Resprout Ability Yes
Responds to Coppicing No
Growth Requirements
pH Range 6.2–7.8 pH
Precipitation Range 16–16 inches/yr
Planting Density 700–1700 indiv./acre
Soil Textures Coarse
Soil Depth for Roots 20
Minimum Frost-Free Days 130 day(s)
Salinity Tolerance None
CaCO3 Tolerance Medium
Sustainability & Use
Leaf Retention No
Palatability Medium
Fire Resistant No
Causes Livestock Bloating None

Source: USDA, NRCS, PLANTS Database,
National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA