Prunus serotina

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Prunus serotina
Flowers and leaves
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Rosids
Order: Rosales
Family: Rosaceae
Genus: Prunus
Subgenus: Prunus subg. Padus
P. serotina
Binomial name
Prunus serotina
Natural range
  • Cerasus serotina (Ehrh.) Poit. & Turpin
  • Padus serotina (Ehrh.) Borkh.
  • Prunus serotina f. typica Schwer.

Prunus serotina Ehrh., commonly called black cherry,[3] wild black cherry, rum cherry,[4] or mountain black cherry,[5] is a deciduous tree or shrub[6] in the rose family Rosaceae. Despite being called black cherry, it is not very closely related to the commonly cultivated cherries such as sweet cherry (P. avium), sour cherry (P. cerasus) and Japanese flowering cherries (P. serrulata, P. speciosa, P. sargentii, P. incisa, etc.) which belong to Prunus subg. Cerasus. Instead, P. serotina belongs to Prunus subg. Padus, a subgenus also including Eurasian bird cherry (P. padus) and chokecherry (P. virginiana).[7][8][9] The species is widespread and common in North America and South America.[10][11][12][13]

Black cherry is closely related to the chokecherry (P. virginiana); chokecherry, however, tends to be shorter (a shrub or small tree) and has smaller, less glossy leaves.


Prunus serotina is a medium-sized, fast-growing forest tree growing to a height of 15–24 metres (49–79 feet). The leaves are 5–13 centimetres (2–5 inches) long, ovate-lanceolate in shape, with finely toothed margins. Fall leaf color is yellow to red. Flowers are small, white and 5-petalled, in racemes 10–15 cm (4–6 in) long which contain several dozen flowers. The flowers give rise to reddish-black "berries" (drupes) fed on by birds,[6] 5–10 millimetres (1438 in) in diameter.[10][14]

Prunus serotina flower cluster.

For about its first decade the bark of a black cherry tree is thin, smooth, and banded, resembling a birch. A mature tree has very broken, dark gray to black bark. The leaves are long and shiny, resembling a sourwood's. An almond-like odour is released when a young twig is scratched and held close to the nose, revealing minute amounts of cyanide compounds produced and stored by the plant as a defense mechanism against herbivores.[15][16]


Like apricots and apples, the seeds of black cherries contain cyanogenic glycosides (compounds that can be converted into cyanide), such as amygdalin.[17][18] These compounds release hydrogen cyanide when the seed is ground or minced, which releases enzymes that break down the compounds.[clarification needed] These enzymes include amygdalin beta-glucosidase, prunasin beta-glucosidase and mandelonitrile lyase.[19] In contrast, although the flesh of black cherries also contains these glycosides, it does not contain the enzymes needed to convert them to cyanide, so the flesh is safe to eat.[20]

The foliage, particularly when wilted, also contains cyanogenic glycosides, which convert to hydrogen cyanide if eaten by animals.[21] Farmers are recommended to remove any trees that fall in a field containing livestock, because the wilted leaves could poison the animals. Removal is not always practical, though, because these trees often grow in very large numbers on farms, taking advantage of the light brought about by mowing and grazing. Entire fencerows can be lined with this poisonous tree, making it difficult to monitor all the branches falling into the grazing area. Black cherry is a leading cause of livestock illness,[citation needed] and grazing animals' access to it should be limited.


Prunus serotina has the following subspecies and varieties:[22]

  • Prunus serotina subsp. capuli (Cav. ex Spreng.) McVaugh – central + southern Mexico
  • Prunus serotina subsp. eximia (Small) McVaugh – Texas
  • Prunus serotina subsp. hirsuta (Elliott) McVaugh (syn. Prunus serotina var. alabamensis (C. Mohr) Little) – southeastern United States
  • Prunus serotina subsp. serotina – Canada, United States, Mexico, Guatemala
  • Prunus serotina subsp. virens (Wooton & Standl.) McVaugh – southwestern United States, northern + central Mexico
    • Prunus serotina var. virens (Wooton & Standl.) McVaugh
    • Prunus serotina var. rufula (Wooton & Standl.) McVaugh
Galls made by the mite Eriophyes cerasicrumena
Black knot infection


Prunus serotina is a pioneer species. In the Midwest, it is seen growing mostly in old fields with other sunlight-loving species, such as black walnut, black locust, and hackberry. Gleason and Cronquist (1991) describe P. serotina as "[f]ormerly a forest tree, now abundant as a weed-tree of roadsides, waste land, and forest-margins".[23] It is a moderately long-lived tree, with ages of up to 258 years known, though it is prone to storm damage, with branches breaking easily; any decay resulting, however, only progresses slowly. Fruit production begins around 10 years of age, but does not become heavy until 30 years and continues up to 100 years or more. Germination rates are high, and the seeds are widely dispersed by birds and bears[24] who eat the fruit and then excrete them. Some seeds however may remain in the soil bank and not germinate for as long as three years. All Prunus species have hard seeds that benefit from scarification to germinate (which in nature is produced by passing through an animal's digestive tract).[citation needed]

Deer browse the foliage.[24]

Pests and diseases[edit]

P. serotina is a host of caterpillars of various Lepidoptera. The eastern tent caterpillar defoliates entire groves some springs.


Prunus serotina subsp. capuli was cultivated in Central and South America well before European contact.[25]

Known as capolcuahuitl in Nahuatl (the source of the capuli epithet), it was an important food in pre-Columbian Mexico. Native Americans ate the fruit.[24] Edible raw, the fruit is also made into jelly, and the juice can be used as a drink mixer, hence the common name 'rum cherry'.[26]

Prunus serotina timber is valuable; perhaps the premier cabinetry timber of the U.S., traded as "cherry". High quality cherry timber is known for its strong orange hues, tight grain and high price. Low-quality wood, as well as the sap wood, can be more tan. Its density when dried is around 580 kg/m3 (36 lb/cu ft).[citation needed]

Prunus serotina was widely introduced into Western and Central Europe as an ornamental tree[27] in the mid-20th century,[28][29] where it has become locally naturalized.[27] It has acted as an invasive species there, negatively affecting forest community biodiversity and regeneration.[30][31]


  1. ^ Stritch, L. (2018). "Prunus serotina". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2018: e.T61957524A61957527. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-2.RLTS.T61957524A61957527.en. Retrieved 19 November 2021.
  2. ^ "Prunus serotina L." Plants of the World Online. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Retrieved 17 March 2024.
  3. ^ World Economic Plants: A Standard Reference, Second Edition. CRC Press; 19 April 2016. ISBN 978-1-4665-7681-0. p. 833–.
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  5. ^ "Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center - The University of Texas at Austin". Retrieved 2021-01-23.
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  19. ^ Yemm RS, Poulton JE (June 1986). "Isolation and characterization of multiple forms of mandelonitrile lyase from mature black cherry (Prunus serotina Ehrh.) seeds". Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics. 247 (2): 440–5. doi:10.1016/0003-9861(86)90604-1. PMID 3717954.
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