Sweet cherry

Sweet cherry (Prunus avium) - Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada. Vol. 2: 327.
Sweet cherry (Prunus avium)


  • Scientific name: Prunus avium
  • Kingdom: Plantae—Plants
  • Division: Magnoliophyta—Flowering plants
  • Class: Magnoliopsida—Dicotyledons
  • Family: Rosaseae—the Rose family
  • Genus: Prunus L.—Cherry
  • Life Cycle: Perennial


Sweet cherry is an introduced fruit tree that has been naturalized from gardens and farms into the wild in eastern and midwestern North America. A deciduous tree, it grows to a height of 40-60’ at a fast rate. It has a tall trunk with a diameter as large as 1.5’, and a cylindrical crown of stout, gray branches with a spread of 15-30’. Fragrant white flowers, 2.5-3 cm wide with 5 petals, appear singly or in 2-6 flowered clusters or umbels in April or early May slightly before the foliage emerges. Although the flowers are hermaphroditic, meaning they have both male and female organs, the plant is not self-fertile and must be pollinated by bees. Flowers are followed by 2-2.5 cm round or ovoid red to black cherries with a sweet edible pulp, which ripen in early June or July. Leaves are 3-6” long, about half as wide, obovate to ovate, abruptly long-pointed, with bases rounded and margins sharply and often doubly serrate. Leaves are dull dark green and nearly hairless with slightly sunken veins above, and paler beneath with soft hairs along the veins. Petioles are .75-1.5 inches long with a pair of glands at their summits. These are fairly conspicuous and larger compared to other cherry species growing in this region. Bark is reddish brown, smooth, and marked with horizontally elongated lenticels; on older trunks peeling in horizontal strips, exposing the lighter colored inner bark.


The settlers that lived in the mountains of Shenandoah National Park often grew sweet cherry on their orchards. Many of these same trees can be found on old homesites throughout the park today. Since the park was established in the 1930’s, the orchards have become assimilated into the forest habitat that currently prevails in the park. Sweet cherry has survived and undoubtedly spread due to birds and mammals that browse its fruit.

Sweet cherry can grow in acid, neutral, and basic soils. It prefers average, medium wet, well-drained soils in full sun, such as roadsides like Skyline Drive, to partial shade, such as the more open canopied woodland settings of the park.

Other Facts:

Sweet cherry originated in the area between the Black and Caspian seas of Asia Minor and was probably carried to Europe prior to human civilization by birds. Cultivation is believed to have begun with the Greeks, and was perpetuated by the Romans, which lead to its spread throughout Europe. There, trees were planted along roadsides and were grown for their timber as well as their fruit. Sweet cherries were brought to the United States with English colonists in 1629. Since then, it has been cultivated here in many varieties. “Mazzard” is the common name of the wild form and is used as the parent root stock in grafting improved cherry varieties sold in commerce for fruit production, such as the popular bing cherry. (University of Georgia website)

Cherries are susceptible to a large number of diseases and insect pests. Diseases include bacterial canker, rots, scab, crown gawl and powdery mildew. Insect pests include aphids, caterpillars, scale, and flies.

Like all stone fruits, cherry flowers, leaves, and especially seeds and bark contain toxic compounds that produce hydrogen cyanide, which is toxic or lethal in large doses. It is readily detected by its bitter taste, often reminiscent of almonds. Children have been poisoned by chewing twigs, eating seeds, and making tea from leaves. Livestock have been killed from browsing its branches and leaves.

The fruit of the sweet cherry can be cooked in pies and cakes, or used to make preserves. It can be eaten raw or cooked and may be bitter or sweet, depending on how ripe it is. If the fruit is very bitter, make sure not to swallow the seed, as it may contain high levels of cyanide, mentioned above. An edible gum can be obtained by wounding the bark.

Although no specific reference has been found for this species, all members of the Prunus genus contain amydalin and prunasin, substances which break down in water to form hydrocyanic acid (cyanide or prussic acid), which is of course toxic or lethal in large doses. In small amounts, however, it has been considered therapeutic, particularly for cancer treatment, and has been used for this purpose since at least 25 BC. It can also stimulate respiration and improve digestion.

Sweet cherry fruit stalks are an astringent, tonic and diuretic, the latter attribute thought to cure kidney diseases. A decoction is used in the treatment of cystitis, oedema, bronchial complaints, looseness of the bowels and anemia. In addition, an aromatic resin can be obtained by making small incisions in the trunk, which has been used as an inhalant in the treatment of persistent coughs.

In Europe, the wood of the sweet cherry is valued and often used for interior finish, and for making furniture and musical instruments.

References and Links:

Grimm, William Carey. 2002. The Illustrated Book of Trees. Stackpole Books. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. pp 454-456.

Little, Elbert L. 1996. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Eastern Region. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; New York, New York. Random House of Canada; Toronto. pp 495-496.

University of Georgia Horticulture Program - Cherries

Further information can be found:

Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) Report U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Germplasm Resource Information Network database which is sponsored by the Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

PLANTS National Database, a website supported by the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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