by Stefan Nelson, RGS & AWS Forest Wildlife Specialist
The Upper Great Lakes states have three species of native cherries, all belonging to the Prunus genus and the Rosaceae family (roses, apples, plums, cherries, hawthorns, etc.). Cherries are utilized by many interest groups, including for timber harvest/forestry products, firewood and horticulture, and comprise a seasonally important forage for a variety of wildlife species. Like many other plants in this family, these cherry species have bright white aromatic flowers during late spring and early summer. Cherries are somewhat shade-tolerant and grow well in forest understory, fence rows, canopy gaps and new clear-cuts. Cherries are often found in young aspen patches, hardwood canopy gaps and along hardwood forest edges. Although you won’t find pure stands of cherries, they contribute to the young, brushy cover that grouse favor when in shrubs. These plants have finely serrated, pointed, alternating leaves. Like the cherries you find at the grocery store, all three cherry species are edible to humans – more on that later.
Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is the most common of the three native cherries, growing from a small shrub to a moderately large tree. Like the other two cherries across the region, as a shrub, black cherry has smooth, dark purplish/gray bark that’s offset by distinct horizontal, whitish-colored bark pores or lenticels. As a tree, black cherry bark is dark and flaky. Its wood is hard, reddish/brown colored and a commercially valuable hardwood for many products. You’re far more likely to find black cherry as a tree than the other two cherries, but it can be commonly seen as a shrub in the understory of wooded areas, canopy gaps or clear-cuts. Black cherry is relatively shade-tolerant and can produce fruit within a few years of seeding. Like the other cherries, plants exposed to more sunlight seem to have noticeably higher amounts of fruit. The fruit grows in bunched clusters on stalks called racemes. I would rate black cherries in taste as 4/5 when ripe because they’re fairly sweet, and on a good plant, you can find several clusters of ripe berries to snack on. Overall, black cherry is an excellent fruiting species to manage for ruffed grouse and other wildlife.
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is the second most common of the three native cherries. Chokecherry almost exclusively grows as a shrub, but in theory, has the potential to reach small tree size. I’ve never seen chokecherry with a stem diameter greater than 3 inches in Wisconsin, Minnesota or northern Michigan. Like black cherry, chokecherry fruits grow in clustered racemes, are dark purple/nearly black when ripe, and are similarly valuable to wildlife. I would rate chokecherry fruits in taste as a 2/5 because while edible, they’re noticeably more tart than black (and pin) cherry fruits and will make your mouth slightly numb and tingly. Although its bark and fruits look similar to black cherry as a shrub, chokecherry can be distinguished from the other cherries by its leaf shape. Its leaves are shorter than the other two cherries with an overall rounded shape and possess a much less pronounced point or nearly no point at all. Alternatively, black and pin cherry leaves are much more lanceolate shaped, meaning they’re shaped like the head of a lance or spear, having a narrow oval shape that tapers to a sharp point at each end. Chokecherry is a fruiting shrub I would recommend planting on private land to improve grouse habitat.
Pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) is the third and least common cherry species, although native to most counties in the Upper Great Lakes states. Like chokecherry, pin cherry is typically a shrub but occasionally grows to small trees. However, unlike black and chokecherry, pin cherry fruits grow singly off an individual stem and are bright red when ripe, not dark purple/black. Pin cherry leaves are similar to black cherry, but some plants may be longer and pointier than black cherry leaves. However, pin cherry can be best identified by its fruit when compared to black and chokecherry. I would rate pin cherry fruits as 3/5 in taste because they’re sweet when ripe, but because they grow singly, they’re often less abundant on a particular plant versus black or chokecherry, and the large seed ensures you don’t eat much soft pulp per fruit. Overall, pin cherry is much less common than black or chokecherry but can exist locally in single plants or small groups. Due to their uncommon nature, they’re less important for grouse and other wildlife forage than the previous two cherries.
It shouldn’t be understated how essential cherries are to wildlife. Cherry fruits are high in sugars and are an energy-rich diet staple for ruffed grouse, wild turkey, many songbird species, black bear, raccoon, opossum and even foxes. Cherry fruits “come online” and are ripe between early July to mid-August, depending on the plant size, location and amount of sun it receives. Between my past work on the Deer Management Assistance Program in Wisconsin and personal observation, I’ve learned that the leaves and twigs of cherry species are also a moderate- to highly-preferred white-tailed deer browse. Cherry fruits all possess large seeds inside, which wildlife spread in their droppings. If you’ve ever come across raccoon or bear scat in the summer and have seen several light-brown colored round “spots” in them, the chances are high that those are cherry pits. People eating cherry fruits should be careful not to eat the seeds, which contain the compound amygdalin. Amygdalin is also present in the leaves and bark, but not the fruit itself. If cherry seeds are broken down during digestion, amygdalin can produce hydrogen cyanide, which is toxic to people. To have a serious health risk, though, a person would need to break down and then eat a couple dozen seeds or more. If the seeds are swallowed whole and not broken down, they harmlessly pass through the digestive tract.