Cherry, wild (Prunus avium)

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Wild cherry is thought to be the most ornamental of our native broadleaf woodland trees.

Common name: wild cherry

Scientific name: Prunus avium
Family: Rosaceae

UK provenance: native

Interesting fact: although the seeds are distributed by mammals and birds, cherry trees can also propagate themselves by root suckers.

What does cherry look like?

Habit: mature trees can grow to 30m and live for up to 60 years. The shiny bark is a deep reddish-brown with prominent cream-coloured horizontal lines. The second part of its botanical name – ‘avium’ refers to birds, who eat the cherries and disperse the seed. In Scotland, cherry is sometimes referred to as ‘gean’.

Leaves: oval, green and toothed with pointed tips, measuring 6–15cm with two red glands on the stalk at the leaf base. They fade to orange and deep crimson in autumn.

Flowers: cherry trees are hermaphrodite, meaning the male and female reproductive parts are found in the same flower, in April. Flowers are white and cup-shaped with five petals, and measure 8-15mm across. They hang in clusters of 2-6.

Fruits: after pollination by insects, the flowers develop into globular, hairless deep red cherries.

Look out for: the leaf stems (petioles) have two red glands at the top.

Could be confused with: sour cherry (Prunus cerasus), compared to this, wild cherry fruits are on longer stalks, bird cherry (Prunus padus), and plum cherry (Prunus cerasifera)

Identified in winter by: winter twigs have oval shaped buds in clusters.

Where to find wild cherry

It is native throughout the UK and Europe, except the far north. It grows best in full sunlight and fertile soil.

Value to wildlife

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 the main food plant for caterpillars of many species of moth, including the cherry fruit and cherry bark moths, the orchard ermine, brimstone and short cloaked moth.

Mythology and symbolism

In Highland folklore, wild cherry had mysterious qualities, and to encounter one was considered auspicious and fateful.

How we use cherry

Traditionally cherries were planted for their fruit and wood, which was used for making cask hoops and vine poles. The sticky resin was thought to promote a good complexion and eyesight, and help to cure coughs.

These days cherry wood is used to make decorative veneers and furniture. The wood is hard, strong and honey-coloured, and can be polished to a good shiny brown colour. Wild cherry has many cultivars and is a popular ornamental tree in gardens. The wood burns well and produces a sweetly scented smoke, similar to the scent of its flowers.

Threats

Wild 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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