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Wisconsin Plant of the Week

Prunus serotina Ehrh.

Rosaceae (Rose Family)

Common Name:

wild black cherry


Wild Black Cherry is a native deciduous tree that grows to 25 m. Itís most common in Wisconsinís southern dry or mesic forests and as a pioneer in disturbed areas and along fence rows.

Flowers bloom in May in long (8-15 cm) clusters or racemes of about 20 flowers at the end of the current yearís leafy twig.  Like all the flowers in the Rose Family, they have 5 sepals united at the base, 5 petals, many stamens and a single pistil.  The petals of black cherry are white, about 4 mm across, and round but narrowed to a stalk where they attach. The petals remain as the fruit forms. The fruit, up to 1 cm, is dark purple to black, and edible when ripe.

Leaves are alternate, 6-12 cm long , glossy, and lance-shaped, with a pointed tip.  Fine teeth on the leaf edges are slightly incurved. Often the middle vein on the underside of the leaf has fine rust colored hairs.

Bark on young trees is dark and smooth with horizontal white lenticels. As the tree matures its bark breaks up into plates resembling large burnt cornflakes. The wood is valuable for fine woodworking.

The genus Prunus includes the cherries and plums in Wisconsin, and peach and almond further south. Most can be identified by the leaf shape and two glands at the base of the leaf on either side of the leaf stalk (not visible in the photo). Twigs of Prunus taste like bitter almond or cyanide. Cyanide also occurs in the leaves making them poisonous to livestock.

Choke cherry (P. virginiana, FAC-) is a shrub or small tree very similar to black cherry, except the leaves are dull and more oval, with spreading rather than incurved teeth. The underside of the leaf is either free of hairs, or, with hairs in the axils of the lateral veins. The petals of choke cherry are round, not stalked, and drop as the fruit forms. The fruit, even when ripe, is dark red and very sour.

For photos of fruit and bark see Checklist of Wisconsin Floraís P. serotina page.

  • Origin of the name: Prunus, L. plum; serotina, L. late, autumnal, refers to the late ripening of the fruit
  • Range:  Nova Scotia to ND, s to FL, AZ
  • WI Range:  Statewide
  • Common associates: Oaks, basswood, mayapple
  • Wetland Indicator Status: FACU
  • Coefficient of Conservatism: C = 1 (S&W), C = 2 (MI)
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