Wild cherry belongs to the genus Prunus and is a member of the Rose family (Rosaceae).
Wild cherry (Prunus avium) is a deciduous tree growing to 30m and flowering April to May.
Lifespan: not a long-lived species as it can begin to rot after 60 years.
The bark is a deep reddish-brown, shiny and peeling with prominent horizontal lines. Leaves are oval, doubly toothed with pointed tips, hairless above, downy below 6–15cm with two red glands on the stalk at the leaf base.
Cherries are hermaphrodite: they have ‘perfect’ flowers with both sexes represented in one flower. Flowers have individual stalks and hang in clusters of two to six. They are white with five petals (8–15mm) and cup shaped. Fruits are red, globular and hairless (10mm).
Wild cherry is insect pollinated and seeds are dispersed by mammals and birds, but it can also reproduce via root suckers.
Native to the UK and much of Europe except in the far north.
Distribution is patchy but frequent and locally common in England, Wales and Ireland. Rarer in Scotland. Found in hedgerows and woodland; often along the boundaries which may be due to its light-loving nature.
Its true native range is distorted by frequent planting for its snow-white spring blooms and vivid scarlet autumn leaves.
Cherry has an attractive, uniform, honey-coloured wood which is hard and strong. It is sought-after timber, even today, for making decorative veneers, furniture and for turnery.
In the past cherry was planted to provide fruit and its wood was used for making cask hoops and vine poles. Cherry wood burns well and produces a perfumed smoke.
Wild cherry has many cultivated varieties and is popular in gardens and residential planting schemes. New forms are being selected, tested and improved for the timber industry under the Wildstar trade mark.
In Scotland, cherry is sometimes referred to as ‘gean’.
Cherry fruits are favoured by many birds such as the blackbird, song and mistle thrush. By eating the seeds the birds help to disperse and germinate them; a fact that originally led to its Latin name avium (birds). Fallen fruits are eaten by mammals such as the badger, wood mouse, yellow necked mouse and dormouse.
The spring flowers provide a source of nectar for bees, butterflies and very small birds such as blue tits.
Wild cherry is the food plant for the cherry fruit moth and the cherry bark moth. However, cherry is just one of a number of trees in the rose family providing food for a wide range of moth species which also include the orchard ermine, the brimstone, the short cloaked moth and the large fruit-tree tortrix.
A fast-growing, light-demanding species which grows best on deep, moist to well-drained soils from acidic to calcareous. It does not tolerate heavy clays, waterlogging or badly drained sites and can be sensitive to drought.
Cherry is a lowland species intolerant of exposure; only growing to elevations of 300m above sea level. It requires good management (weeding, pruning and regular thinning) to produce good timber and should be planted in groups to ensure cross-pollination for good fruit.
Seeds can be collected in September and sown immediately or cold stored and sown March to April. New plants can be easily cultivated using softwood cuttings or grafting techniques. Wild cherry naturally spreads via seed and the production of suckers.
Susceptible to bacterial cankers (Pseudomonas syringae pv. morsprunorum and P. s. pv. syringae) Pruning wounds can also leave the tree open to infection from silverleaf (Chondrostereum purpureum). The cherry black fly (Myzus cerasi) also causes dieback. Cherry is not generally damaged by grey squirrels but deer may be pests.
Bird cherry (Prunus padus) is also a member of the Prunus genus. It is a deciduous tree growing to 15m and flowering April to May.
Bird cherry differs from wild cherry in both form and character.
Its bark is smooth, peeling, greyish-brown and emits a strong odour. Leaves are alternate, oval, toothed and usually hairless (or hairs on the underside in vein axils) 5–10cm with pointed tips and two glands on the stalk at the leaf base.
Flowers are white, five-petalled (6–9mm) on stalks (8–15mm) and arranged on long spikes; strongly sweet scented. Fruits are berry-like reddish-black and bitter.
Bird cherry is native to the UK and distributed from south Wales and East Anglia northwards. It is commonly planted elsewhere. It is found in moist woodland, hedgerows and along stream sides. It grows best on moist to well-drained soils from acidic to calcareous and has a light-loving habit. It can tolerate greater exposure and elevations than wild cherry and is often found in upland woodland.
Seeds can be collected in September and sown immediately or cold stored and sown March to April. New plants can be easily cultivated using softwood cuttings or grafting techniques. Bird cherry does not produce root suckers.
Illustrations © Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.