Wild black cherry (Prunus serotina) grows from Maine to Florida and westward into the Great Plains. The wild black cherry tree takes its name from the color of both its edible fruit and its bark. Both of these features of the black cherry tree will aid you in identifying it, as well as other aspects such as its foliage, size and shape.
The "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees" notes that the average wild black cherry tree has a trunk diameter of about 2 feet and the tallest trees grow to heights of 80 to 90 feet. The average black cherry is within the 50 to 60 foot range in terms of its height. The University of Connecticut Plant Database site reports that the spread of the black cherry's branches will vary from 35 to 50 feet in width on mature specimens. The tree will possess an oval form or a pyramidal shape, with the ends of the branches drooping downward.
Leaves as long as 5 inches and as wide as 2 inches grow on the branches of the wild black cherry in an alternate fashion. The green leaves, dark and shiny, will develop early in spring, usually before those of most surrounding trees. The edges have many fine serrations and the fall colors range from yellow-green to yellow, red and orange.
Flowers and Fruit
The flowers and fruit of wild black cherry are easily recognizable. The flowers are white, with five petals and grow in a drooping cluster as long as your fingers. These clusters, called racemes, emerge in the middle of the spring and produce a fragrant aroma; bees and other bugs flock to them. The fruit is one-third of an inch wide, about the size of a large pea, and starts out red before turning black-purple by late summer or early autumn. The more mature fruit is juicy and softer than the immature types and although bitter, it is not quite as tart as when it is not ripe.
The bark on the young wild black cherry tree is smooth, dark gray in color and has lenticels—horizontal lines—throughout. The bark then begins to turn flaky as the black cherry ages, until it is a dark shade of gray-silver to nearly black. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources website describes the texture and color of the bark with a comparison to "black cornflakes", saying that it looks as if someone pasted them onto the trunk and branches. This dark bark shows up vividly in winter, when the majority of trees in the forest have no leaves.
You will often find tent caterpillars and their large wispy whitish homes in the branches of a wild black cherry. Wild black cherry occurs in such places as open woodlots, fields and along roadsides. Black cherry trees prefer deep damp fertile ground but the species will grow just about under any condition. You may often find many black cherry trees growing together, as the seeds the fruit contain fall to the ground and new seedlings develop.