Walk along the edge of a meadow, the perimeter of a farm, or into a clearing in a deciduous forest on Martha’s Vineyard, and one plant you can almost count on finding is the black cherry tree. The black cherry, or Prunus serotina, is native to the Island and a vitally important source of food and shelter for a remarkable number of animals.

The underside of black cherry leaves exhibit orange fuzz, called "pubescence." This feature is absent on chokecherry leaves and is a good way to tell the two species apart. — Courtesy Maura Welch/The Nature Conservancy

These strong, lanky trees prefer well-drained soils and are shade-intolerant. That’s why they are most often found in agricultural grasslands, sand plain grasslands and abandoned fields. Black cherries are often solitary plants because birds and mammals transport their seeds (which are nestled inside nutritious fruits many animals eat) long distances from their parent trees. And because black cherries can self-pollinate, it’s easy for isolated individuals to produce small but persistent populations.

Black cherry trees are relatively simple to identify. The dark, shiny leaves are finely toothed around the edges, and a trace of brownish-orange hair fringes the base of the midrib on the underside of each leaf. The bark is dark brown and roughly textured.

As a very young tree, P. serotina has a thin and striped trunk, resembling that of a birch. At a glance, it is wiry and angular. One other way to remember how to identify a mature black cherry is that its bark resembles burnt cornflakes. (BC = Black Cherry).

On Martha’s Vineyard, the black cherry flowers between May and July and produces fruits between June and October. Prunus serotina gets its name from that Latin “sero,” which means late, as it flowers later than most cherry species. The flowers are small, white and arranged in drooping, cone-like clusters. The fruits (cherries) are mildly sweet, about a centimeter in diameter, and all contain one seed (pit). At first they are green-red, but turn black when they are ripe.

The fruit of P. serotina is an important source of food for many animals including birds, deer, squirrels, rabbits and raccoons. Robins and cedar waxwings especially feed heavily on the fruit of this tree. The small white flowers of black cherry provide nectar for many insects and especially attract small flies and bees. Black cherry is also the host plant for the caterpillars of several moths, including the silkmoth and the cecropia, and several butterflies, including eastern tiger swallowtails, coral hairstreaks, striped hairstreak, cherry-gall azure and red-spotted purple.

The horizontally striped bark of an adolescent tree (left) and the rough bark of a mature tree (right). — Courtesy Maura Welch/The Nature Conservancy

Providing so many nutritional resources through its fruits, leaves and flowers, cherry trees are very susceptible to pests and overconsumption in general. Deer can be particularly devastating. Fencing, or some other barrier, may be necessary to prevent the animals from completely wiping out the trees. Eastern tent caterpillars also feed heavily on black cherry, forming unattractive silk “tents” that house scores or hundreds of caterpillars. These caterpillars can defoliate a black cherry and impede growth. Removal of tents for disposal by bagging or burning is an unpleasant job, but is worth considering if a tree seems severely weakened by repeated infestation.

A disease called black knot (Dibotryon morbosum), which can cause bulbous black growths that invite insect borers on the branches of trees in the Prunus genus, is a threat to cherry trees on Martha’s Vineyard.

But in general, black cherry thrives naturally on the Island and needs little encouragement; the best approach to propagating it may simply be to leave trees in place where they have managed to establish themselves. Bare-root or potted seedlings of black cherry are readily available on the commercial market, and while Vineyard-origin specimens are not available, most of what is on the market appears to be quite similar to wild black cherry. So purchasing by web or mail order may be a way to introduce this plant in places it hasn’t colonized on its own.

This classic Island species provides several ecosystem functions, and encouraging its growth is a great way for Vineyarders to cultivate productive backyard habitats.