How to Germinate American Black Cherry Tree Seeds
The North American black cherry tree, Prunus serotina, has served as an important resource for wildlife and native peoples for millenia. Also known as wild cherry and rum cherry, this handsome, undemanding tree tolerates a wide range of soil and drainage conditions. It is particularly fond of cool, moist summers and requires a frost-free growing season of 120 to 155 days. Fast-growing black cherry may reach heights up to 80 feet in U.S. Department of Agriculture zones 4 through 9, performing at its finest in zones 7 through 9. Fruits ripen from late June through mid-September, depending upon location. Seeds germinate easily, whether strewn by wildlife or nurtured by human hands.
Collect fully ripe black cherries. Hold a cherry under cool running water, and rub the soft flesh and any residue off the stone. Set the seed on a paper towel on the counter out of direct sunlight, and allow it to air dry at room temperature for several days.
Place the black cherry seed in a small glass jar. Cap it and put it in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator until mid-January. You must mimic this tree’s forest floor fall-winter chilling period to prepare the seed for germination.
Stratify the black cherry seed to simulate its natural damp winter “after-ripening” cold cycle treatment. Pack a sealable plastic food storage bag loosely with moist peat moss. Bury the stone in the material, and seal the bag. Refrigerate in the crisper drawer for 10 to 12 weeks. Open the bag weekly to make sure the peat moss never dries out.
Cultivate a fertile, well-draining, sunny spot about 2 feet square in early spring as soon as you can work the soil and it is no longer soggy. Locate it away from heavy foot traffic areas, as the mature tree will drop copious numbers of fruit at a young age and is very messy. Plant the black cherry stone ½ inch deep. It will germinate in a few weeks if the weather is warm enough. If not, the seed will simply remain dormant until the following spring. No further care is needed until the seedling emerges.
Feed the black cherry tree seedling when it is about 4 to 6 inches tall to stimulate new growth. Use a balanced fertilizer. Follow the packaging instructions. This tough, durable native plant requires little, if any, care. Water it during extended dry periods if the soil dries out during its first growing season. Your black cherry tree may start blooming in as little as three years.
How to grow Wild cherry
Wild cherry is one of our earliest fruits to ripen. The cherries turn from green to red to almost black around the middle or end of July. You should check their progress regularly to ensure you manage to collect a few of them before the hungry thrushes get them all!
The fruits can be pulled from the tree individually. It is also possible to pick cherries or the stones (cherry seeds) from off the ground.
Extraction and storage
When ripe, cherries are very soft (and often sweet and delicious!), so extracting them tends to be quite straightforward. Follow the mashing technique to remove the flesh or eat the cherry and spit out the stone into a waiting bucket!
If you choose not to eat the cherries, you will need a couple of buckets, a sieve, a flat-bottomed stick and a water supply.
Squashing cherries by hand
The extracted seed should be mixed with equal parts horticultural sand or a sand/compost mixture. If using compost, use 50% leafmould or peat-free compost and 50% horticultural sand. For each handful of seeds add two or three handfuls of mixture. Select a pot that has enough room for this seed/sand mixture (and a bit more) and put a layer of small stones in the bottom for drainage. Cover these stones with sand. Place the seed/sand mixture on top of this and cover this with 2-3cm sand. Label the pot and stand in a shady spot outdoors.
This should be done fairly soon after collection. Wild cherry stones benefit from being exposed to the warmth of late summer before the onset of colder temperatures in winter – this can actually help more of them to germinate in the following spring.
Extracted cherry seeds
Whilst wild cherry provides us with one of the earliest fruits in the year, it also is one of the first of our trees to germinate in the spring – generally at the end of February.
Check to see how they are doing in mid-February. As soon as you see about 5 or 10% with roots emerging it is time to sow – the roots shouldn’t be allowed to get too long or our trees will be weaker and oddly shaped. Sow 2 or 3 in a pot or broadcast them so that they are about 2cm apart. Firm the soil by pressing or rolling and cover with horticultural grit.
Watch out for mice! Cover your beds with netting and your pots with wire mesh. When the plants are about 10cm tall you can remove the protection.
Maintain protection from mice and watch out for blackfly. This is the only real problem wild cherry will suffer from, but growth can be severely checked if there is a bad infestation. Be warned though! Don’t be tempted to use a systemic insecticide – wild cherry does not tolerate this kind of pesticide. Try organic solutions where possible. Keep your pots or beds weed-free. Feed regularly and water during dry spells. A light top-dressing of lime will help them along too.
Young cherry seedling
Plant your new cherry tree into its new home when it is 40cm tall. Prepare the site well by clearing away any weeds or grass and make a hole big enough to accommodate the root ball. Plant carefully in the hole, to the same depth as it was in the pot or seedbed, and firm back the soil.
More Than Just A Decoration, Wild Cherries Are Tasty And Versatile.
There are about 400 species of Prunus worldwide. Their common names generally include cherry, chokecherry, almond, apricot, plum and other fruits known as “stone fruits” because of their large seeds.
These can be large bushes or trees. Some are evergreen, and some are deciduous (meaning that their leaves drop in the winter). Wild cherries can be found throughout North America and in diverse environments.
One way to identify this plant is to crush the leaves, wait a few seconds and then smell them. They’ll have a distinct aroma of bitter almond extract—your clue that the leaf contains cyanide (hydrocyanic acid).
These fruits are very much like cultivated cherries, except the color is darker red—almost maroon—and sometimes even darker. The flesh layer can be very thin in dry years and thicker in seasons following good rains. As with domestic cherries, there’s a thin shell and the meaty inside of the seed.
Some of the common species include chokecherry (P. virginiana), bitter cherry (P. emarginata) and western chokecherry (P. virginiana var. demissa).
Wild cherries are found in canyons, lowland forests, hillsides, farmland, urban areas and chaparral areas and are widespread throughout North America.
The fruit of wild cherries makes a great trail nibble. I usually see them in August, when they ripen and when the trail is hot and dry. The fruit makes a refreshing treat (if it’s not too sour). But don’t eat too many of the raw fruit, or diarrhea might result.
The wild cherry also has a hint of bitterness. The fruit can be cooked off the seeds and the pulp made into jellies, jams and preserves by following any standard jam or jelly recipe. You can also make a fruit “leather” by laying the pulp on a cookie sheet and drying it.
Author Christopher Nyerges explains the benefits of wild cherries while standing next to an evergreen cherry tree that has ripening fruit. (Photo: Jackie Kuang)
In the old days, Native people enjoyed the flesh of the cherry, but they considered the seed to be the more valuable part of the fruit. The seeds were shelled, and the inside meat was cooked to reduce the cyanide. The cooked seeds, once ground into mush or meal, were then used to make a sweet bread product or added (like acorns) to stews as a gravy or thickening agent.
To be used, the flesh needs only to be eaten raw or cooked.
Considering that at least half of the bulk of the collected fruit is the seed, you should at least try processing the seeds if you’ve collected a reasonable volume of the fruit.
I wash the seeds, let them dry and then shell them. I boil through at least three changes of water—this takes about 20 minutes—and then eat the seeds as is or grind them to a mush on a metate (grinding stone). Typically, I add the cherry seed mush to acorn flour to make pancakes. The cherry seeds give the acorn pancakes a sweet, almondy flavor.
These shelled and cleaned cherry seeds are ready to be ground into flour.
When to Harvest/Availability
Wild cherries typically begin to mature in late July and August. In some areas, they’ll be at their peak of ripeness around September. This can vary by a month either way, depending on the local seasonal weather variations.
Native people boiled the cherry bark and then used it as a cough and sore throat remedy, as well as for treating diarrhea and headaches.
Here’s an interesting excerpt from notes made during the Lewis and Clark Expedition (the spelling discrepancies are most likely his). On June 11, 1805, Meriwether Lewis became sick and wrote,
“I was taken with such violent pain in the intesten that I was unable to partake of the feast of marrowbones … . I directed a parsel of the small twigs [of chokecherry] to be geathered, striped of their leaves, cut into pieces of about 2 inches in length and boiled in water until a strong, black decoction of an astringent bitter taste was produced.
A view of the ripe fruits of Catalina Island cherry, which are common in the American West.
“At sunset, I took a point [pint] of this decoction and abut an hour after repeated the dze. By 10 in the evening I was entirely relieved from pain and in fact every symptom of the disorder forsook me; my fever abated, a gentle perspiration was produced and I had a comfortable and refreshing night’s rest.”
The long, straightest shoots and branches of wild cherries have been used for making baskets and cradles by Native peoples. The wood has also been used for many other crafts and weapons, such as spears and atlatls.
Advice for Growing
Cherry seeds are very easy to sprout and grow. After you eat the fruit, plant the seed in good soil right away.
If you crush the leaf, it will impart a sweet aroma that’s similar to the bitter almond extract used in cooking. That’s the telltale aroma of cyanide—so don’t use the leaf for tea!
If you eat a large volume relative to your body size, you could have stomach pains or diarrhea, so exercise caution.
Wild Cherry Jelly
- 3½ pounds ripe wild cherries
- 6½ cups sugar
- ¼ teaspoon almond extract
- 1 box powdered fruit pectin
- 3 cups water
- Jelly straining bag
Clean the cherries and cook with the water in a covered pot for 15 minutes. Pour into the straining bag and collect the juice in a bowl without squeezing the cherries. Combine the strained cherry juice and sugar in a pot. Stir constantly as it comes to a boil. Then, add the pectin and bring the mixture to a rolling boil for one minute while continuing to stir. Remove from the stove. Stir and skim for 5 minutes. Thoroughly stir in the almond extract. Divide evenly into canning jars and process the jars per the manufacturer’s instructions.
About ASG’s Plant Advisor
Christopher Nyerges has been teaching ethnobotany since 1974. He is the author of Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants, Foraging Wild Edible Plants of North America and other books on the uses of wild plants. He can be reached at SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the September, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.