In early August while moving leaf mold from our composting area, an area we mostly ignore, I discovered some purplish to black berries hanging right at eye level.

The berries were a quarter to a third of an inch in diameter, growing in clusters on a tree about 10 feet tall but only an inch wide at its base.

I quite happily postponed the task of hauling leaf mold from our bins to areas in the vegetable garden where I had harvested garlic and pulled out pea vines.

I located Marilyn Dwelley’s 1980 book “Trees and Shrubs of New England” before I found the state-published “Forest Trees of Maine.” Both confirmed my suspicion that we had not one but several small black cherries growing in the area, although only one was producing fruit.

The discovery excited me. Black cherries are native to the Eastern United States and valuable in nature.

A few years ago, as a Friends of Fort Williams Park board member, I directed a group of volunteers from Tom’s of Maine as they freed a black cherry tree from bittersweet, honeysuckle and other invasive species along the park’s Cliff Walk. I learned then what a valuable plant it is for wildlife, and now I’m pleased to have some growing on our property.

Todd Robbins, tree warden for the town of Cape Elizabeth and owner of TMR Property Services, said black cherry is not technically a pioneer species – those plants that are the first to grow in disrupted soil – but it acts as pioneer species do. Birds and other animals eat the fruit, spreading seeds, which sprout easily.

Robbins said black cherries grow better in full sun, like the ones at Fort Williams. These trees on our property are understory plants, beneath oaks and red maples and about 25 feet in from the open area where our house is located. Due to the lack of sun, they will be more gnarly and asymmetrical than they otherwise might be.

Several wild black cherry trees have sprung up on columnist Tom Atwell’s property. Photo by Tom Atwell

There are several ways to identify a black cherry even without the berries. The bark on small trees is dark reddish-brown to black and shiny, and Robbins pointed out the identifying lenticels, which are narrow white bumps where gas is exchanged between the tree and the atmosphere.

It turns out that near a corner of our property is a larger black cherry, about 6 inches in diameter, with dark, rough bark separated into different plates.

Black cherry leaves come out early in the season and are oblong, 2 to 5 inches long, pointed and widest in the middle. Robbins described them as “glabrous,” meaning thicker and shinier than most other leaves.

White flowers, in racemes 4 to 5 inches long, appear in late May and early June when the leaves are about half-grown.

The Dwelley book says black cherries can reach 75 feet; the state’s book limits their height to 50 feet. Most in Maine don’t reach either height, however, and while the wood is excellent for making furniture, Maine black cherries are usually too small to be harvested for that purpose.

Atwell was thrilled at their discovery, as the berries generously feed many kinds of wildlife. Photo by Tom Atwell

The fruit is edible but bitter. In cooking, it can be used in jams, jellies, pies and syrups, which all call for added sugar. But I’m going to leave the berries for the critters to eat. Within a week after I noticed them, the berries on our tree disappeared. They are loved by many native birds, deer, rabbits, foxes and squirrels and other creatures. The tree also supports caterpillars that end up producing, among others, red spotted purple, painted lady and viceroy butterflies.

The real reason I contacted Robbins was to learn how to tend these new treasures. I was worried that the smaller trees growing near the fruited tree would crowd it out. Leave them alone, he advised. As a landscape tree, the black cherry would need plenty of room, but in our situation as part of the woods, he said, crowding won’t be a problem.

Prune for the health of the tree, if it needs it. Cut out any dead branches as well as branches that rub against each other.

Readers who want a native black cherry and aren’t lucky enough to have birds or squirrels plant them might have a problem. I couldn’t find any listed for sale at local nurseries, and Wild Seed Project does not offer the seeds.

Shawn Jalbert of Native Haunts in Alfred said most black cherries sold online are cultivars, and are not as good for the environment as the species. He sometimes has seeds available, and you could scatter seed where you want the trees and it’s likely they’d sprout.

Native Plant Trust, formerly the New England Wild Flower Society, has seedlings listed but says they are out of stock.

Here is one fact, interesting but irrelevant to us: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service, the black cherry is considered invasive in Europe.

“A soil-borne pathogen keeps these trees in check in the United States, but is too weak to stop them from spreading in Europe,” the report says.

Given how easily they have sprouted in our yard, I think I’m glad we have that pathogen.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: