Cherry, bird (Prunus padus)

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Bird cherry is a deciduous tree native to the UK and Europe.

Common name: bird cherry

Scientific name: Prunus padus
Family: Rosaceae

UK provenance: native

Interesting fact: in some parts of Yorkshire it is called 'wild lilac' due to its spikes of white flowers in spring.

What does bird cherry look like? 

Overview: mature trees can grow to 25m. The bark is smooth, peeling and rough, greyish-brown and emits an unpleasant, acrid odour. Twigs are a dull deep brown, with pale markings. Shoots are hairy when young but become hairless with age.

Leaves: oval and hairless except for the tufts under the vein joints. Unlike wild cherry, the edges have fine, sharp serrations, with pointed tips and two glands on the stalk at the leaf base.  

Flowers: cherry trees are hermaphrodite, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are contained within the same flower. Flowers appear in April, they are strongly scented, white and with five petals, and measure 8-15mm across. 

Fruits: once pollinated by insects, the flowers develop into reddish-black, bitter cherries. Unlike wild cherry, bird cherry does not produce root suckers.

Look out for: the leaf stems (petioles) have two red glands at the top. Leaves have hairs on the underside in the vein axils.

Could be confused with: wild cherry (Prunus avium), sour cherry (Prunus cerasus) and plum cherry (Prunus cerasifera).

Identified in winter by: lateral buds are in clusters along the twig.

Where to find bird cherry

Bird cherry is native to northern Europe and northern Asia. It is commonly found in wet woodland, hedgerows and stream and river banks.

Value to wildlife

Like wild cherry, the spring flowers provide an early source of nectar and pollen for bees, while the cherries are eaten by birds including the blackbird and song thrush, as well as mammals such as the badger, wood mouse, yellow necked mouse and dormouse.

The foliage is eaten by caterpillars of many species of moth, including the orchard ermine, brimstone and short cloaked moth, however it is toxic to livestock, particularly goats. 

Mythology and symbolism

If placed at the door, the strong-smelling bark of the tree was said to ward off the plague.

How we use bird cherry

The black fruits can be used for making liqueur or dyeing wool.

Bird cherry is lighter and more finely textured than wild cherry.

Threats

Bird cherry is susceptible to bacterial cankers, which can disfigure and occasionally kill infected trees. Pruning at the wrong time of year can put trees at risk from silver leaf disease, which can also eventually kill the tree. Dieback can be caused by damage from the cherry black fly, Myzus cerasi.

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