Poisonous Wild Cherry Trees in North America

Poisonous wild cherry trees (Prunus serotina) are found throughout North America. Commonly called "black cherry" or "wild cherry," the twigs and leaves of the trees are the source of the poison. Valued for landscape appeal and strong, decorative wood used in manufacturing fine furniture, the spring-flowering trees bear fruit that's tasty to forest creatures but bitter and inedible to humans until it's transformed into jellies, wines or other cooked cherry flavorings.

Cherry tree in bloom, Cyprus
credit: Andy Sotiriou/Photodisc/Getty Images
Small white black cherry tree flowers provide a distinctive spring show.

ID the Tree

Wild cherry trees are the largest type of cherry tree, capable of growing to 100 feet with trunks up to 4 feet thick. They have an oval or pyramid shape with branches that hang downward. Leaves are 2 to 5 inches long with bright green leaves that turn yellow to red in the fall.

Preferred Habitat

Hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 to 8, wild cherry trees are deciduous North American natives that thrive in conditions where abundant sun and well-drained soil are available, favoring the eastern woodlands from Minnesota to Texas.

Poisonous Conditions

Wild cherry trees leaves and twigs contain prunasin, a cyanide known prussic acid that when ingested, can be fatal. The poison becomes a threat when the leaves are exposed to stress that causes them to wilt; wilting breaks down the prunasin and releases the cyanide. Cattle and horses are the main victims of poisoning. Symptoms include gasping, weakness, excitement, dilated pupils, spasms, convulsions, coma and respiratory failure.

Special Precautions

Stormy weather that damages trees causes the leaf drop and breakdown that releases prussic acid. Remove fallen leaves as soon as possible where they collect, typically along fence lines where trees are planted as attractive windbreaks. Wear gloves and wash your hands before eating or drinking. Relocate any grazing animals and keep them away until you've cleared the site. Consuming as little as 1.2 to 4.8 pounds of leaves can be fatal.

Natural Predators

Black cherry trees, among the latest of their species to fruit and flower, are prone to several disease and insect problems including leaf spot, powdery mildew, aphids and borers.