Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Black Cherry

Prunus Serotina

Rum Cherry, ehrh, wild cherry, capulin

By Scott Sheu

            Sweet and bitter, the fruit of the black cherry tree is overshadowed by its bark.  Indeed, the Prunus Serotina is well known for its medicinal usefulness, particularly when it comes to coughs and colds.  The tree is also famous for the beautiful wood it produces, which is widely used for cabinetry and other furniture.

Geographical Description

            The black cherry is a wide-ranging tree that can be found throughout the eastern half of North America.   Different varieties grow in many locales, ranging from Nova Scotia down to Florida and east to the Midwest.  There is also a variety that is native to Central America and the southwestern United States.

            The black cherry is seldom intentionally cultivated nowadays – it is rare to find the tree being sold commercially.  Nonetheless, the tree continues to grow very strongly in the wild.

Biological Description

            The black cherry tree is a large and notably straight-growing tree that can reach up to 100 feet tall.  The bark of the mature tree is very dark and breaks into many upturned plates.  Black cherry leaves are a glossy green, lance-shaped with fine teeth, and are 2-5 inches long.  The leaves produce cyanide, which has a distinctive cherry-like smell and is harmless to humans in small doses (Cook).

            The black cherry tree produces masses of white, fragrant blossoms that bloom later than most trees.  They are small, have five petals, and grow in long clusters.  The cherries themselves ripen in the summer are a very dark red.  They are around 1/3 inch in diameter and have a single stone in them.

Culinary Usage

            The black cherry has a sweet but bitter taste.  The American Indians consumed the black cherry as a fresh fruit, sometimes using it in breads and cakes like the Iroquois did.  The fruits were also often dried and were an essential ingredient in pemmican.  The dried cherries were even ground up and used to make soup by the Ojibwa tribe (Moerman).  The Chippewa used the twigs to make a beverag, while the Potawatomi mainly used the fruit for alcoholic spirits. 

            Indeed, the black cherry is still used for alcoholic beverages such as whiskeys and wines.  It is most popular in rum, thus earning it the name “rum cherry.”  Black cherry is also used as a flavoring for soft drinks and in jams and jellies as well.

Other Usages

            The black cherry tree was extremely important medicinally to the American Indians.  The dried inner tree bark was commonly used to make a tea or infusion that was treated for a variety of symptoms, including colds, fevers, diarrhea, labor pains, and general pain reliever due to its tranquilizing and sedative qualities (Peirce).  The root was also used by American Indians for things such intestinal worms, burns, cold sores, and other dermatological symptoms.  The fruit was used to make cough syrups by tribes such as the Delaware.  The early settlers followed this practice and black cherry continues to be used in syrups in folk medicine.  In fact, the U.S. Pharmacopoeia listed the black cherry bark syrup as a “mild sedative and expectorant to clear congestion” (Peirce).

            The wood of the black cherry is also notable for the fineness of its wood, which is reddish tan.  Just as the Cherokee used it to make furniture, it is still considered nowadays to be one of the finest woods around.  The leaves and fruit were also used to make dyes.




Cichoke, Anthony J. Secrets of Native American Herbal Remedies: a Comprehensive Guide to the Native American Tradition of Using Herbs and the Mind/body/spirit Connection for Improving Health and Well-being. New York: Avery, 2001. Google Books. Web.

Cook, Will. "Black Cherry (Prunus Serotina)." Duke University. 23 Apr. 2010. Web. <>.

Gergulics, Robert. "Prunus Serotina." Plants For A Future. 11 Apr. 2009. Web. <>.

Peirce, Andrea. Practical Guide to Natural Medicines. New York: Morrow, 1999. Print.