Wild Cherry






Wild Cherry
Prunus serotina

Family: Rosaceae
Genus:  Prunus
Species:  serotina


Synonyms:   Wild cherry, Virginian prune, black cherry, black choke, choke cherry, rum cherry.

Description:  The Wild Cherry is a small to largish tree, up to 30m tall, and is widely distributed in woods and by the side of roads in the countryside.

It produces alternate stiff oblong or ovate leaves with serrated margins and small white flowers growing in lateral racemes.

The bark is rough and nearly black on older trunks, but it’s the younger branches and trunks that are the best ones to use; a tree which is smooth, glossy and reddish-brown with white lenticels and an underlying greenish-brown cortex.  The fruit is a nearly spherical, deep red in colour and a smaller cherry than the cultivated variety, but very sweet to eat from late July onwards.

Collection & Preparation:    From young plants in the autumn when it has its highest prussic acid content. The outer bark is stripped off and the inner bark is dried in a dark place as to dry in the sun or in the light will damage the constituents of the inner bark.

Parts used:  The inner bark and leaves.

Constituents:  Cyanogenic glycosides including prunasin; volatile oil, benzaldehyde, coumarins, benzoic acid, gallitannins, resin, an enzyme (prunase).

Actions:  Antitussive, expectorant, mild sedative, astringent, digestive bitter, tonic, pectoral, stomachic.

Indications:  Irritable and persistent cough of bronchitis, pertussis, cough due to increased irritability of respiratory mucosa. Nervous dyspepsia.

Therapeutics and Pharmacology:   Wild Cherry is an important cough remedy.   The cyanogenic glycosides are hydrolysed in the body to glucose, benzaldehyde and hydrocyanic acid, otherwise known as prussic acid.

Prussic acid is rapidly excreted via the lungs where it first increases respiration and then sedates the sensory nerves which provoke the cough reflex.

Due to its powerful sedative action, it is used primarily in the treatment of irritating and persistent coughs when increasing expectoration is inappropriate, and thus has a role in the treatment of bronchitis and whooping cough and in the racking cough of debility or convalescence.

It can be combined with other herbs to control asthma.

Both the cyanogenic glycosides and volatile oil help to improve the digestion, and Prunus may be used as a bitter where digestion is sluggish.

A cold infusion of the bark may be used as a wash in eye inflammation and as an astringent in diarrhoea.

Contraindications:   Wild Cherry can cause drowsiness. Cyanogenic glycosides are moderately toxic, producing cyanic acid on hydrolysis, and should not be taken to excess.

Preparation and Dosage:
Pour a cup of boiling water onto one teaspoonful of dried bark and leave to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes and drink three times a day.

Tincture:  1-2 mls. Of the tincture three times a day in warm water.

Folklore and additional comments:   A tale recounted in an old English carol tells of how Joseph and the pregnant Mary were walking in a cherry orchard when Mary asked Joseph to pick her some cherries.   However, Joseph remarked that she should get whoever had “brought thee with child” to pick the cherries for her.

The unborn Christ child then communicated with the cherry trees asking them to lower their branches so Mary could pick her own cherries, and Joseph was suitably repentant.

In former Czechoslovakia it was customary to cut cherry branches on the Feast of St Barbara on 3th December, and to bring them into the warmth of the house to have blossomed at Christmas, however, the tree, of course, flowers naturally at or around Easter, especially if Easter happens to be late, and in England in the Chilterns, some of the abundant blossoms were used to decorate churches at Easter.

Wild cherry folklore has unusual associations with the cuckoo, whereby the bird has to eat three good meals of cherries before it can stop singing.  Similarly, a children’s rhyme from Buckinghamshire says:

Cuckoo, cherry tree,
Good bird tell me,
How many years before I die?”

The answer will be the next number of cuckoo calls the singer hears.

The wild cherry is commonly known as ‘gean’ a name which shares its roots with ‘guigne’ in Gaelic.   Though a more recent Gaelic name of uncertain origin, ‘fhioghag (meaning a fig tree) is also used.  The ‘gean’ is a direct ancestor of cultivated cherries, although the fruit of the wild cherry is not as big.  You must be quick to beat the birds to an abundant crop following a good spring and summer, and they are often picked when they are still yellowy red before they ripen to a deeper red.

Wild cherries make lovely fruit pies or wine.

The bark was used to make fabric dyes, ranging in colour from cream to tan, while a reddish-purple colour was derived from the roots.

Wild cherries were both used to flavour alcoholic drinks such as whisky or gin, and cherry brandy can easily be made by filling a bottle of brandy up with wild cherries, adding sugar and left for a few months.

The resin, which leaks from the trunk, was formerly used by children as chewing gum.

Cherry wood is hard, fine-grained and used for turning, especially the large burls with unusual grains which sometimes appear on the trunk.  It is also used for making furniture and its red-brown wood polishes up well to a deep shine.

In some parts of the Highlands of Scotland, there were taboos against the use of the tree, but none seemed widespread or to have persisted over the centuries.  In a way, this may reflect the nature of the cherry tree in that they were not very long-lived nor did they grow anywhere in large quantities.  Rather they seemed to appear singly or in small groups, sometimes on the edge of woods, though in the Highlands they were often found well away from the competition of other trees.

The fact that they were briefly conspicuous in spring, though the beautifully vibrant displays of blossom on their branches followed by drifts of fallen petals on the hillsides around them gave the wild cherry a somewhat mysterious quality in Highland folklore, and to encounter one was considered to be auspicious.