Black cherry: tree of affliction

black cherries

I always think of the wild black cherry (Prunus serotina) as a tree of affliction. Even its fruiting can be a burden to it on years like this, when branches bend low under the weight of the crop and black bears break them in their inexplicable eagerness to feast on the sour, stony fruits. Nor are they alone: as my mother wrote in a column last year,

In addition to cedar waxwings, I saw red-eyed vireos, blue jays, and scarlet tanagers harvesting wild black cherries, but the list of songbirds and other wildlife that feast on them is legion. Thoreau mentioned gray catbirds, brown thrashers, eastern kingbirds, blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds and northern cardinals as the most common birds that eat wild black cherries, in addition to robins and cedar waxwings. Huge piles of bear scat studded with cherry pits on our trails testified to their popularity with bears. And the smaller animals, such as foxes, squirrels, and chipmunks, also ate the fruit.

black cherry with tent caterpillar webs

It might sound a little melodramatic to refer to black cherry as a tree of affliction, but like many temperate-zone fruit trees it’s a member of the rose family and therefore susceptible to any number of pests. Both tent caterpillars in the spring and fall webworms this time of year seem especially attracted to it. Borers, scale insects, aphids, carpenter ants and pileated woodpeckers attack it with a vengeance. And though a hardwood, its new growth is flimsy and highly susceptible to storm damage. The trees in general have poor architecture and shallow root systems, making them equally vulnerable to splitting and uprooting, depending on the nature of the storm.

Some trees become horribly disfigured with the fungus known as black knot. I thought I remembered writing about this a few years ago and did a seach of the Via Negativa archives. I found a short post describing the aftermath of our last big ice storm back in January 2005, which disproportionately impacted the black cherries, as ice storms always do.

Now here’s another misshapen shadow: a cherry the ice storm didn’t touch. Most of its branches have been truncated by the fungal infection that foresters call black knot. I wonder if this thorough amputation of twigs and smaller branches isn’t what saved it, preventing the ice from reaching critical mass? In such extreme conditions, a handicap can turn into an advantageous trait. The chronically ill sometimes are the fittest, the ones who survive the longest, bear the most young. Pain is their legacy, and it is the most precious gift imaginable. Without it, imagine how brittle we’d be — how terribly unequal to the task of love.

(Hmm. Not sure I agree with that now.)

split black cherry

Black cherries grow in profusion on the south-facing slopes of our mountain, in part because their seedlings are among the few species not especially attractive to deer. Almost pure stands of black cherry can be found throughout northern and central Pennsylvania, in fact, and in many areas, lumbermen strive to perpetuate this unnatural dominance through clearcuts, which traditionally favored the fast-growing, shade-intolerant cherries.

Some foresters have gone so far as to try and convince their ecologist colleagues of the rightful existence of a black cherry-dominated “Allegheny hardwoods” forest type, unique to our region and therefore deserving of special preservation efforts such as even-aged forest management, A.K.A. clearcutting, followed nowadays by herbiciding of ferns and striped maples and extensive deer fencing, the deer having nothing else to eat in many areas. So preserving a black-cherry-dominated timber stand is a little like what the American major famously said about that village in Vietnam: you have to destroy it in order to save it. But the historical record is clear. In a more natural forested landscape, black cherries would make up probably no more than two percent of forest cover in our region, filling in the occasional gap left by the death of some other tree.

black cherry wood

It’s no mystery why loggers are so fond of the tree: it’s a beautiful wood. At one time, it was sent to furniture manufacturers in the Carolinas, but now most of it is shipped to China, whence we re-import it as finished furniture at great cost in carbon emissions. One can only hope that the new crop of local Amish and Mennonite furniture-makers prosper enough to help put an end to this absurd practice.

Far Field in ice

Unnatural as the current dominance of this species may be in our woods, its fruiting habits do serve as a reminder of the kind of teeming and profusion that used to occur on a regular basis when the great eastern forest was still largely intact. When I see the ground in our cherry woods carpeted with fallen fruit, I’m reminded of descriptions of the American chestnut before it succumbed to the blight, and how the woods used to be ankle-deep in chestnuts every fall. Most of our native wildlife species evolved with such bonanzas, so perhaps we’re lucky that a few tree species still display such irrational exuberance (to steal Alan Greenspan’s memorable phrase), however much it may cost them in the end.

For the 51st edition of the Festival of the Trees at Orchards Forever, focusing on edible trees (deadline for submissions: August 29).

6 Replies to “Black cherry: tree of affliction”

  1. Oh I just LOVE it when your posts combine the poetry of beautiful writing and the wisdom of long observation. Your mother’s piece is lovely too, with that stunningly evocative list of birds.

    ‘Tree of affliction’ has a biblical ring to it, as though the black cherry may have been the tree that Judas hung himself from (whereas tradition has that as being the ‘Judas’ tree) or the wood of it used to build the cross at Golgotha. It’s interesting too that the burden of its sweet fruit is also the means of its destruction, in the sense that the heaviest boughs break under the weight. Our ancient plum trees here have had to be brutally pruned to stop them from splitting their fragile, hollow trunks when heavy laden with fruit. I’m staggered by what these frail survivors produce, their skeletal frames bowed under the weight of ripened goodness. One tree is little more than a brittle, hollow tube, yet still staggers under the weight of its fruit.

    1. Glad you liked this, Clive. I guess that does sound kind of biblical, doesn’t it? The trouble with pruning of course is that once you start it, you can’t stop. Many of the black cherries are pruned by storms at an early age and then grow lopsided or crooked for the rest of their lives, more vulnerable to each successive storm.

  2. Huge piles of bear scat studded with cherry pits

    I’ve seen that on one of last year’s hikes… though we didn’t see the actual trees, or at least didn’t recognize them (stripped of fruit?). The leaves are pretty generic-looking, but that bark looks familiar. (This year we got a few cups of the season’s last raspberries, but completely missed the blueberries.)

  3. Loved all the fascinating snippets of information in your post, and the pictures! The one of the frosty trees is an absolute breath-taker!

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