Speaking of Nature: The black cherry — An easy tree to identify in winter

By BILL DANIELSON

Published: 02-19-2023 3:13 PM

As the days begin to lengthen, I find myself wistfully looking out the window of my car and watching the forests go by as I drive to work. The prolonged period of warmer-than-average weather that we have experienced this winter has also left the forest floor exposed and the various ferns and mosses that populate the understory provide sumptuous greens for my hungry winter eyes to feast upon. Honestly, there are mornings when I just want to pull over, park the car and walk off into the woods where I can find a quiet place to sit on the ground and lean against a tree for a while.

As a naturalist, I can’t help but to compulsively look for any physical hints that might indicate the events in each tree’s life. I look for broken branches, lost limbs, scars, lightning strikes, or bits of wire fencing that have been incorporated into the trunks of certain individuals, and I try to consider each tree’s past and future. I will even confess to occasionally giving a friendly pat to an exceptionally beautiful specimen and the offering of a few words of encouragement for a long life to come.

But it is impossible to look at trees in this manner without first knowing something about them and the most important question you need to answer is, “What kind of tree am I looking at?” Winter may not seem like the best season for tree identification, since few of them have any leaves to look at, but there are actually several species that can be easily and accurately recognized at this time of year.

To identify a tree during the winter you are going to have to focus your attention on its trunk and bark. This is actually going to make things a little easier because you won’t be distracted by too many other details and this is exactly how I learned to identify trees back in my college days when I took Forestry 212. My professor would go out into the woods and bring back sample branches of local trees. Once we learned what the twigs and buds looked like he would take us out for a walk and show us what the trunks looked like. So let’s start with an easy tree to identify — the black cherry.

When searching for a black cherry tree you want to look for a tree trunk covered with bark that has a distinctly flaky appearance. The color of the bark is a dark gray, but from a distance one could definitely describe it as being “black.” Imagine a tree that has been covered in dark-gray bran flakes and you’ll have the right idea in your head. This characteristic bark is actually a wonderful resource for winter birds because black cherries have all sorts of nooks and crannies for small insects to hide in. As a result, brown creepers and nuthatches are likely to be found foraging up and down their trunks at this time of year.

Very young black cherries do not have flaky bark at all. Instead, the bark of a sapling is very smooth and dark maroon in color. It is actually quite similar to the bark of young birch trees, but there is a key characteristic that can help you identify a young cherry tree. The twigs are full of hydrocyanic acids that offer them some protection from certain herbivorous mammals. These acids also give the broken twigs a strong, acrid odor when broken and detecting this odor is one of the best methods for identifying young cherry trees.

The most helpful characteristic to help identify older trees is the presence of tumorous growths on the twigs and trunks. Caused by the black knot fungus, these tumors are so obvious you will easily be able to spot them even if you are driving along at 50 miles per hour. Smaller twigs and branches of individual trees may be covered with hundreds of the black, knotty growths, while larger trunks may have tumors that are bigger than a basketball. You may not be able to confidently identify a black cherry tree that lacks one of these growths, but a tree that has one is basically unmistakable for anything else.

Capable of withstanding severely cold conditions, the black cherry is widely distributed in the eastern United States. It does not grow well on very wet, or very dry sites, but you are likely to find one growing just about anywhere else. The fruit of the black cherry is a delectable wild edible that is consumed by many birds and mammals. Many species simply swallow the fruits whole, digesting the sweet flesh and then passing the pits later. On more than one occasion I have come across a pile of poop that seems to be more than sixty percent cherry pits. I have also witnessed evening grosbeaks in the process of cracking and eating the seeds. This is truly impressive when you consider how hard cherry pits actually are and it made some spectacular snapping noises when the pits finally gave way.

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Any pits that fall to the ground, or are dispersed by animals, may remain dormant for many years before germinating. The average cherry seed needs to “ripen” in this manner for about three years. This can represent a valuable cache of food for mice and other small rodents that may help to sustain them if other seed crops fail. For those seeds that can survive the years-long ripening process there is then a question of luck. In the first 30 days after sprouting a black cherry seedling grows to a height of about 10 inches. If conditions are ideal (meaning the seedling is not in too much shade) the young tree may then add an additional 36 inches to its height every year for several years. The largest black cherries top out at about 100 feet with a diameter of two to three feet.

Maximum seed production starts at about 30 years of age and continues to about 100 years. Seed production then drops off, but a tree may continue to produce seeds for as long as it survives. The oldest seed-producing cherry tree was 180 years old. So for at least 70 years a healthy black cherry can produce a lot of food for a host of different birds and mammals.

But the value to wildlife does not end with the fruits alone. The leaves of black cherry trees are a valuable source of food for the eastern tent caterpillar, which turns out to be a valuable source of food for about 60 species of wild birds, including Baltimore orioles and black-billed cuckoos. Some birds may feast upon the caterpillars if they are found wandering around the trunks of trees, but the orioles and cuckoos will happily open up the “tents” as if they were picnic baskets full of delectable treats.

Whenever I contemplate the characteristics of a particular species of tree I can’t help but think about J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Ents.” These wonderful walking and talking tree-like creatures were the protectors of forests and they were responsible for helping trees grow to their fullest potential. The Ent that was featured prominently in the books and films was named “treebeard” and he helped some of the hobbits escape from certain death. I don’t remember seeing any Ents that represented black cherries in the films, but they would have been easy to identify. Knees and elbows would sport those black knots and they would have tufts of white where the caterpillars lived. And, surely, they would have been full of chipmunks and mice, which would have tickled the Ents terribly.

Perhaps someday, if I keep walking into the woods and speaking words of encouragement to beautiful trees — patting their trunks and complimenting them on their wonderful branches — one will open its eyes and talk to me. I think that you should give it a try too! Grab the kids, a friend, or that special someone and go in search of a black cherry tree. If you should find an Ent please let me know so I can tell my father that they are actually real.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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