The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 24, 2007


Biodiversity Corner:
Black Cherry

The black cherry party tree. (Photo by Tom Brownrigg)
Last Sunday I received a message from Tom Brownrigg about a wild and crazy party going on up in the black cherry tree in his yard. It made me think I should write a different kind of column this week. I had intended to write about the ivory-marked borer, a rather elegant long-horned beetle which turned up in my bedroom on August 9 with a story to tell, but most of you will never encounter one and are not going around saying to yourself, "I've always wondered about those." It is more likely that now and then you face a decision of which trees to keep, which to cut and what kind to plant. So here is a story about a single, humble, black cherry tree.

The black cherry, Prunus serotina, is not going to win any beauty pageants, but its leaves are dark and lustrous, it has pendulous clusters of white flowers in May, and small black fruits which ripen in August and September. This one lives at the edge of woods where it has reached a good stature. It is 11.6 inches in diameter at chest height and about 20 to 25 feet tall. Black cherry trees can attain heights of 100 feet with 50 to 60 feet being more common.

Farmer's market. On Sunday August 12, the Brownrigg black cherry opened its farmer's market. The first to arrive, at 6:00 a.m., were the robins and bluejays soon to be displaced amid loud complaints by a pair of fishers. One fisher was near the top of the tree eating ripe cherries. It soon joined the other cavorting on the ground. The robins and bluejays returned to their foraging. Other customers at the market included three Baltimore orioles, two scarlet tanagers, two cedar waxwings, a gray catbird, a red-bellied woodpecker, a northern cardinal and an eastern kingbird.

A cedar waxwing visits the black cherry tree. (Photo by Tom Brownrigg)
Behaviors. The get-a-room award for displays of affection in public would go to the pair of cedar waxwings which fed cherries to each other. The go-to-your-room award would be pinned on the eastern kingbird who was not observed eating cherries himself but was busy preventing a bluejay from getting any.

Other visitors. Other species that missed the Sunday market but have fed from this tree of good and plenty include ovenbird, rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting, and common grackle as well as gray squirrels, red squirrels and chipmunks.

More to a tree than its fruit. John Bakewell, local arborist, convinced the Brownriggs to spare a particular branch that had been targeted for pruning. This is now known as the "Bakewell Branch" and has become the favorite perch of a male ruby-throated hummingbird, who uses this vantage point to monitor the hummingbird feeder for intruders.

Spreading the wealth. The black cherry has implemented a very successful strategy for seed dispersal. By making its fruit attractive to a wide array of birds and mammals, it has ensured it seeds will be carried various distances to a variety of habitats, some of which will surely be suitable. If you have a wild black cherry tree in your yard, keep it. Many species will thank you and the tenuous web of life will be stronger. (Cautionary note for people with livestock: the wilted leaves of the black cherry release cyanide and are poisonous, so this is not a good tree for the farm yard or barn yard.)

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito