Prunus serotina/virginiana – Rosaceae family
Wild cherry trees dress up the global landscape. These North American beauties have been prized for centuries for their ornamental value due to their leaf shape, fragrant blossoms and colorful fruit. Wild cherry’s classic beauty is more than skin deep.
Cherry pits were part of renaissance Europe’s medicine chest. Families kept “confection boxes” with herbs and spices mixed with honey for emergencies. Among these herbs were cherry pits, which, in small doses, were used to treat sore throats and stomach aches. These had to be used with caution as the pits contain trace amounts of prussic acid also known as hydrogen cyanide.
Cherry trees manufacture prussic acid to protect their seeds from boring insects. Producing this chemical represents a delicate balancing act. Too much prussic acid would prevent birds from eating the fruit to spread more wild cherry seedlings.
The inner bark also contains this compound and special sugar molecules which cause a chemical reaction in the body. This mixture quickly enter the lungs and has two important jobs to do. First, they increase respiration. Secondly, wild cherry quiets the cough reflex with a mild sedative. The tannins loosen mucus to dry the sinuses and decrease phlegm. These actions have made wild cherry bark a time-honored cough syrup.
Wildlife rejoices in cherry trees. Most people have enjoyed the buzz of bees as they pollinate cherry blossoms and the song of native birds as they feast on the summer fruit. Caterpillars, however, tend to go unnoticed. Over 70 species of butterflies and moths lay their eggs in wild cherry trees. Cherry leaves, which are poisonous to livestock, are choice baby food for developing caterpillars throughout North America. Wild cherries are just one link in the ecological chain that makes our planet a beautiful place to live.