Our Southeastern forests have many wonderful hardwood trees, but few have so many uses as the wild Cherry. Though there are 400 some species in the prunus genus in the temperate world, three of our Eastern native cherries interest me: Prunus serotina (Black Cherry), prunus virginiana (chokecherry) and prunus pensylvanica (Pin cherry). These three native species are relatively common and abundant in the Southeastern Woodlands.
Though there are differences between these three species, biochemically and energetically they work in similar ways. Both can be used for food (the berries) and medicine (the bark and twigs). Wild cherry bark infusions and syrups are a well known cough and cold remedy in Southern Appalachia and have a long history of use by different First Nations people and settlers to the area.
Black cherry (or rum cherry/ mountain black cherry) is a pioneer species, meaning it is one of the first trees to enter a disturbed area. This makes it a sort of forest marker, letting us know the history of a forest by its mere presence. It is shade intolerant, though it prefers to grow in open sunlight, so it tells us of a past disturbance that opened up the forest of the over-story allowing more sunlight to hit the forest floor. The wild cherry is often found growing in areas that were once open pasture, or high up on ridges that are exposed to high winds. It has even been found at elevations of 3,200 ft.
Because the bark is largely used in medicine here, and that is essentially a use of wood, I want to go a little deeper with these trees and examine the amazing medicinal qualities they possess as well as the folkloric and practical uses of their woods. The dried inner tree bark was commonly used by different Eastern First Nations people. They made infusions for colds, fevers, diarrhea, labor pains, and as a general pain reliever due to its tranquilizing and sedative qualities. They passed it's use on to the early colonial settlers who included wild cherry in many cough elixir recipes.
The root was also used for things such intestinal worms, burns, cold sores, and other skin ailments. The fruits were used as well to make cough syrups by tribes such as the Delaware. The European settlers copied this practice and wild cherry bark is still used in herbal syrups and teas for coughs and colds. Young trees were harvested in fall, when the chemical constituents are most mobile in the tree, and the shiny, birch-like bark of young cherries peels well.
In Appalachia, cherry bark was used in cough medicines, tonics, and mild sedatives. The fruits were used in pies, preserves and as a flavoring in rum. This gives them their lesser known name of ‘rum cherry’.
The bark works as an antispasmodic, essentially helping to quell the cough reflex and allowing the ill person some restful sleep. For this reason, it was also used for treating asthma. Like our friend the Black Walnut, cherry moonlights as a poison plant.
The leaves, twigs, and bark of black cherry contain a cyanogenic glycoside called prunasin. All cherry trees contain this chemical as well as amygdalen which converts into hydrocyanic acid (or prussic acid) in water. However in small doses this chemical can stimulate the respiratory system, improve digestion and give an enhanced feeling of well-being. However in large doses it can prove fatal so is best left alone. When cherry leaves wilt, cyanide is released and livestock that eat these wilted leaves may get sick or even die. Deer, however, eat fresh foliage without harm surprisingly. The horned one enjoys a micro dose of poison every now and again.
The cherry tree resin was used by children as a sort of chewing gum. This resin was also used as a treatment for coughs, and when dissolved in wine, it was used to treat gallstones and kidney stones. The bark was used non medicinally to make fabric dyes, from cream to tan, while a ruddy color was derived from the roots. Cherry bark was chopped fine, soaked in whiskey and taken as a digestive aid at mealtimes as well.
“Government and virtues: It is a tree of Venus. Cherries, as they are of different tastes, so they are of different qualities. The sweet pass through the stomach and the belly more speedily, but are of little nourishment; the tart or sour are more pleasing to an hot stomach, procure appetite to meat, and help to cut tough phlegm and gross humours; but when these are dried, they are more binding to the belly than when they are fresh, being cooling in hot diseases, and welcome to the stomach, and provoke urine.
The gum of the cherry-tree, dissolved in wine, is good for a cold, cough, and hoarseness of the throat; mendeth the colour in the face, sharpeneth the eyesight, provoketh appetite, and helpeth to break and expel the stone; the black cherries bruised with the stones, and dissolved, the water thereof is much used to break the stone, and to expel gravel and wind. “
-Nicholas Culpeper, 1653
In Appalachia, wild cherry bark was used as an ingredient in cough syrups and to make a tea known as Cherokee tea by many. It was used to relieve pain and as a mild sedative during the early stages of labor, and drank at the early onset as a warm decoction. Slaves used wild cherry in a variety of medicinal ways as well, which was informed by their own unique folk medicine legacies combined with the medicine they learned from European an Native people around them. Many used it as a blood tonic, for bad colds, and mixed it with other herbs for ailments of the lungs.
In folklore, the cherry pales in comparison with some of our other trees in terms of depth and agedness, but there are many bits and bobs of note. In the region of former Czechoslovakia it was custom to cut cherry branches on the Feast of St. Barbara on December 4th and bring these into the house force blossoms by Christmas. However, the tree of course flowers naturally at or around the Spring Equinox and in England the cherry blossoms were used to decorate churches at Easter.
There is another interesting English tidbit or lore wherein the cherry is associated with the cuckoo. It is believed that the bird has to eat three good meals of cherries before it may stop singing. Similarly, a children's oracular rhyme from Buckinghamshire says:
'Cuckoo, cherry tree,
Good bird tell me,
How many years before I die',
The answer being the next number of times the cuckoo calls after the song is sung.
In Britain there are two more folk beliefs surrounding cherries. If you want to know when you will marry, just count the cherry pits from eaten cherries on the plate and say:
“This year, next year, sometime, never” and whatever you say when you get to the last pit tells you of your fate. Another superstition exists only in Kent, and advises that if you visit a cherry orchard and do not rub your shoes with cherry leaves, you will die of suffocation from a cherry pit.
In the Ardennes region in France, children also used to carry lighted torches into fruit orchards on the first Sunday of Lent and chant:
“Bear apples, bear pears,
And cherries all black
To Scouvion!” (1)
In Japan sakura is the unofficial national flower which symbolizes purity and beauty. The cherry is sacred to the legendary princess Konohana Sakuya Hime, who is the mother of the three children progenitors of humankind and is still worshiped at Shinto shrines at Mt. Fuji.
In Advie, in northeast Scotland, it was considered a taboo to cut the cherry, for it was regarded as a "witche’s tree". While in Switzerland anyone who wanted to ensure their cherry trees would bear plentifully should offer the first fruit of each new season to a woman who has recently given birth to a child.
Elsewhere in Europe, the cherry tree continues to occupy a more sinister role:
In Denmark, certain forest demons were thought to hide in old cherry trees and bring harm those who approached them. While in Lithuania there was a demon known as Kirnis who acted as the guardian of the cherry tree.
In Serbian mythology there are the Vila, who are fairy or elf like creatures. They ride seven year old stags bridled with snakes, and their cry sounds like that of a woodpecker. If a mother in anger consigns her child to the devil, the Vila are the ones who have a right to that child.
They often appear dancing gaily round a wild cherry tree,
“Cherry! dearest Cherry!
Higher lift thy branches
under which the Vilas
Dance their magic roundels.
-Serbian Ballads, translated by Bowring pp. 491-2
"The Albanians believed certain trees were haunted by Devils or demons, especially the cherry when it grew old and barren. The shadow of these trees was believed to be evil and cause swellings in the hands and feet to anyone unlucky enough to rest in their cursed shade. Peasants of Mt Etna avoid sleeping under these trees, especially on St Johns night, lest they should be beset by the devil. However if it happens, they must first cut a branch from off the tree and “bleed the tree”.
-De Gubernatis, Mythologie des Plantes, vol. i. p. 111.
Cherry wood is one of, if not the most, valuable hardwood lumber on the East coast. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that our wild cherry wood became desirable by wood-workers. It was once considered a poor substitute for mahogany, but today is recognized as a highly valuable wood by most. Due to its high price, many landowners and foresters spend millions of dollars trying to spread and foster the species, which is good news for forests and wildlife who eat the berries.
The wood is fine, strong, durable and bends easily. It doesn't check or warp excessively, and does not shrink very much, making it great for bowl turning. It is so valuable because it saws cleanly, but it is best worked by more advanced carvers with hand tools due to its hardness. The rich, reddish-pink colored heartwood is really what makes this wood special, and it even darkens with time to a rich red.
This makes it a great wood for cabinetry, making fine furniture, flooring, bowls, spoons, walking sticks, doors, stair posts, handrails, gunstocks, piano actions, wall paneling, smoking pipes, musical instruments, and even caskets. The diffuse porous texture and general lack of interlocked grain makes it exceptional to hand plane as well. A sharp blade will leave a faceted surface that requires no sanding. Cherry is, in general, great for sawing, chiseling and gluing.
What can I make with it?
Practical: Bowls, spoons, plates, utensils, fine furniture, smoking pipes, pretty much anything in a lovely shade of reddish wood.
Magical: Wands or magical spoons for Venus aligned poison path work, bowls to hold hedge-crossing ingredients or stones, and smoking pipes for visionary blends.
(1) Abbas. ": EUROPEAN WILD CHERRY: SUPERSTITIONS, USES AND HEALTH BENEFITS OF WILD CHERRY TREES." Herbs Treat and Taste. N.p., 20 June 2012. Web.
(2) Campbell, Alexander Clark. "The Black and the Red: Return to Eden/Pt. 1."Terrabeat. Louisville Music News, n.d. Web.
(3) Kendall, Paul. "Cherry." Mythology and Folklore of. Trees for Life, n.d. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.
(4) Landsman, Johnathan. The Discovery Guide to Jenkins Arboretum Their Lore and Identification. Devon: Jenkins Arboretum, 2007. Print.
(5) "Superstitions Myths Beliefs and Folklore about Trees around the World."Pitlane Magazine. Pitlane Magazine, 2016. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.
(6) Trapani, Ryan. "The Incomparable Black Cherry." Power of History. N.p., 24 Feb. 2010. Web.
(7) Walter Gregor, "Some Folklore of Trees, Animals, and River-fishing from the N.E. of Scotland" The Folk-Lore Journal. Volume 7, 1889. p. 41.
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