Northern pin cherry, wild red cherry, pigeon cherry
By Scott Sheu
The pin cherry tree grows mainly in the northern regions of North America, ranging from Newfoundland to British Columbia in Canada and down via the Appalachian Mountains to some areas of Tennessee.
They are sometimes also called “fire cherry trees” because they grow rapidly in areas cleared out by forest fires.
The pin cherry is a small and slender deciduous tree that grows up to 30 feet tall and sometimes takes on a somewhat “shrubby” appearance. The trunk grows up to about 1 foot thick and has a reddish brown color that peels off in horizontal strips. The light green leaves are oblong with a sharp tip and teeth along the edges. They grow sparsely on the tree to about 3-5 inches long and around 1 inch wide. The five-petaled flowers are small, white, and bloom in clusters.
The pin cherry fruit is small (about ¼ inch in diameter) and bright red. They grow in small clusters.
Though the pin cherry is considered nowadays to be too sour for consumption except through jams and jellies, they were in widespread usage with the American Indians. Many ate them fresh or used them for preserves, including the Algonquin, the Cree, and the Cherokee. The Iroquois used the cherries in small cakes and breads, while the dried fruits were taken as hunting food. For the Ojibwa, pin cherries were an especially abundant food and besides eating them fresh, they were also dried and sometimes ground into flour for soups (Moerman).
The pin cherry was also commonly used for an incredible variety of medicinal purposes by the American Indians; the bark was of particular use for tribes. An infusion of the bark was used for cough medicines by the Algonquin, Cherokee, Iroquois, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Wet’suwet’en (Moerman). A bark infusion was also used to treat blood posoning (Algonquin), to treat sore eyes (Cree), and stomach pains (Ojibwa). Other bark uses included dermatological uses, as a burn salve and measles. The Cherokee used the pin cherry fruit to treat gastrointestinal issues (Moerman).
The bark was also used in basketry, especially by British Columbians, who would soak it in a red or black color.
Erichsen-Brown, Charlotte. Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: a Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes. New York: Dover Publications, 1989. Print.
Moerman, Daniel. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, OR: Timber, 1998.
"Pin Cherry (Prunus Pensylvanica) Species Page." Northern Research Station - USDA Forest Service. Web. 16 Apr. 2010. <http://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/atlas/tree/RFtreemod_761.html#>.
"Trees of Wisconsin: Prunus Pensylvanica, Pin Cherry." University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. Web. <http://www.uwgb.edu/biodiversity/herbarium/trees/prupen01.htm>.