Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Wild Cherries
Nature Bulletin No. 201-A  October 9, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County 
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

This is a year of bountiful harvests, rewarding the labor of the farmer and the gardener, and also producing an abundance of wild fruits which may be had for the picking. In our forest preserves, all wild fruits have been unusually large, juicy and full of flavor -- strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, currants, gooseberries, elderberries, grapes, plums, haws, crabapples and cherries. To some of us, the last is the tastiest of them all and, a month ago, the outer twigs of the wild cherry trees were drooping with heavy clusters of this fruit.

The familiar Wild Black Cherry is the only one of the four kinds of wild cherries found in this region which grows to be a large forest tree widespread throughout the eastern half of North America. Its reddish- brown close-grained wood, strong and rather hard, takes a satiny finish and compares favorably with mahogany. It is highly prized for fine cabinet work and some of our most beautiful pieces of antique furniture from colonial and pioneer times were made of wild cherry.

It is one of the first trees to leaf in spring, and, soon after, it looms against the sky with dense elongated clusters of small white flowers. Later, the bunches of cherries, as they ripen, slowly change from green to red, to purple, and finally black. In years like this, they may reach a diameter of one-half inch. They are sweet and juicy with a bitter but pleasant winey tang when fully ripe, and may be used to make jelly, jam, pie, preserves, wine, or "cherry bounce". Indians crushed and dried them for winter use, or to make pemmican. Pheasants, quail, and a hundred other birds eat these cherries and scatter their seeds. Squirrels, chipmunks and wild mice gnaw them for the kernels within.

The pointed leathery leaves are about a third as wide as they are long and glossy on the upper surface. Tent caterpillars seem to prefer them above all other leaves. The wilted leaves, from sprouts or limbs cut and left to lie on the ground, often prove a deadly poison to cattle, due to the presence of prussic acid. The dark outer bark of the larger trees is broken into loose-edged flakes an inch or two across, and appears scaly. A resinous gum which oozes from wounds in the bark, frequently in considerable quantity, make good chewing gum; and extracts of the bark are still used for sedatives, laxatives and tonics.

Wild Red Cherry, also called pin cherry, pigeon cherry, bird cherry and fire cherry, appears as an occasional small tree in sandy soils of the Great Lakes region, most often following forest fires. Its flowers are in small clusters; and the cherries are red, small and sour when mature, but occasionally used in cough medicines.

Among the sand dunes around Lake Michigan, we find the Sand Cherry: a small shrub with characteristically erect leaves, scanty flowers and dark red fruit. Some people find this fruit to be delicious.

Along the woodland borders, along fence rows, and as a "weed" tree creating an understory in the forest, the chokecherry is common over most of the United States and southern Canada. It is a large shrub or small tree with dull-surfaced leaves, broader than those of the black cherry. Its white flowers, which grow in long dense showy clusters, are very fragrant with a heavy almond-like perfume. They are followed by clusters of small red cherries which are "puckery" to the taste but are relished by many birds.

In some places, the cultivated Pie Cherry has escaped and is growing wild, its seeds having been distributed by birds.

Can you bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy?"

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