Wild Cherry Tree, A Native American Necessity

Wild Cherry Tree

Prunus avium, Sweet Cherry leaves and fruit
Prunus avium, Sweet Cherry leaves and fruit

The name Wild Cherry Tree refers to a number of species in the genus Prunus.  Some of the more common are the Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) and the Chokecherry (Prunus Virginiana) both native to North America.  There is also a species native to Europe called wild cherry ( Prunus avium).   All these species have similar characteristics.  Wild cherry trees can be identified by their leaves which have finely serrated edges and bark showing horizontal lenticels on newer growth, and sometimes older growth. Another good identification feature is that many cherry trees have a fungus called black knot which creates large and small cankers or burls on the tree. Black knot affects many plants in the Prunus genus including Cherries and Plums.

Edibility and Culinary Use

The only edible part of the plant is the fleshy part of the fruit,  even the seeds contain toxins.  Taste varies a lot from one species to another and also within each species from one individual to another.  The European species Prunus avium is also called Sweet Cherry and it is the wild version of the cherries that we buy at the supermarket, its taste is sweeter than the North American species. The Black Cherry and Chokecherry have a similar taste, they can be very bitter, with a hint of sweetness, they can also be rather sweet, but the bitterness is almost always present.  They can be eaten raw right off the tree but are more commonly used in pies and other recipes.  If eating them raw choose the darkest and softest cherries, make sure you spit out the seed. Cherries are ripe in summer between May and June depending on the species.

Prunus serotina, Black Cherry leaves, fruit and twigs
Prunus serotina, Black Cherry leaves, fruit and twigs

Health Benefits

Cherries contain a number of very effective antioxidants including chlorogenic acid, quercetin, and kaempferol.  Cherries also help to reduce arthritis and gout pain.  Cherries are an excellent source of Fiber, Potassium, and many B-Vitamins. HealthTrends.com has some more information on B-Vitamins and Potassium.


Leaves, bark, seeds and all other parts of the Cherry Tree contains a substance called hydrogen cyanide that break down into cyanide and could be potentially harmful to humans.  Grazing animals are often lethally poisoned by eating too many cherry leaves.  Hydrogen cyanide has a very bitter taste, if berries are extremely bitter it may be best to avoid them.



Cherries were a necessity to ancient people including Native American Indians, they ate them in many ways including pemmican, a high calorie Native American food for long trips.  The native Cherry Tree is still common in many parts of the US especially the eastern half.  Once you have identified that you have indeed found a cherry tree, try a cherry or two, I like to eat them raw in small quantity during the summer.

Read our Article on: Safe Foraging

Prunus serotina, Black Cherry leaves and flowers
Prunus serotina, Black Cherry leaves and flowers (Photo By: Rasbak / Wikimedia Commons)
Prunus avium, Sweet Cherry horizontal bark lenticels
Prunus avium, Sweet Cherry horizontal bark lenticels (Photo By: Rosser1954 / Wikimedia Commons)
Prunus serotina Black Cherry Bark with Black Knot canker
Prunus serotina Black Cherry Bark with Black Knot canker (Photo By: Hardyplants / en.wikpedia)
Black Knot on Cherry
Black Knot on Cherry (Photo By: Robert L. Anderson, USDA Forest Service, bugwood.org)

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5 thoughts on “Wild Cherry Tree, A Native American Necessity

  • October 16, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    I find these articles on wild edible Fruits very interesting. I live in New England, USA and I am wondering if there is a book out with all this information in it. Making jams with these fruits and possible fruit pies sounds great to me.

    • October 17, 2013 at 8:30 pm

      making jams and pies from wild fruits is great, my mom has done it ever since i was a kid. One of the best new england fruits for pies and jams is autumn olive. elaeagnus umbellata, because it is so common, and the plants ussually produce loads of fruits its easy to get a large bowl full, they ussually grow in old field, and woods edges. some other great fruits for new england for pies and jams is wild grapes, any plant in the genus rubus(raspberries, blackberries), and an interesing one which i have not made into a pie yet is kousa dogwood. slighlty tropical flavor.

      • August 3, 2015 at 11:46 am

        Just to be completely clear, though Autumn Olive does grow prolifically in New England and is used for pies and jams, it is not a native. Neither the Indians nor the English settlers would have used it. Autumn Olive is an Asian invasive, and gets out of hand very quickly.

        Wild grapes, on the other hand, are 100% native.

  • June 15, 2021 at 4:02 pm

    Western Catskill Mountains, Upstate NY, At this time wild black cherries and choke cherries are tiny little green balls, will not be ready for weeks yet. Choke cherries make a wonderful jelly and grow on fairly small shrubs, rarely 15 feet tall and easy to pick if you beat the birds to them. Black cherry however may reach heights of 60-80 feet and are more difficult to pick. I take the cherries and simmer them in a little water in a covered pot for a few minutes. Then sieve them thru my Grandma’s Foley food mil thus retrieving all the juice and pulp well removing the pits and skins. If I am not using the juice immidiatly I can it in Mason jars for later. Shadberries are also almost in season here.


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