Plant This, Not That: New Jersey Natives Edition
Black Cherry, Prunus serotina, vs Bradford Pear
Genevieve Schmidt’s California Natives edition of “Plant This, Not That,” spurred a number of us to share natives from our own states and regions. Last month Eastern Red Cedar was my native choice and I am now sharing another favorite, Black Cherry, Prunus serotina.
Black Cherry, Prunus serotina, is a widespread native tree found throughout the East, from Quebec south to Florida, west to North Dakota and Arizona.
Everything about Black Cherry ranks it as one of THE most important native trees for wildlife: (1) more birds feed on the fruits of this native tree than any other, (2) more butterflies and moths lay their eggs on this tree than any other tree, excepting the oaks, and (3) add to this mix its ornamental flower show in the spring.
Black Cherry blooms in mid-May and is a stunningly beautiful tree. Black Cherry flowers attract countless insects and the insects in turn attract hungry, migrant, insect-eating birds, like warblers. We can fill a bird feeder to attract goldfinches and chickadees and titmice, but there is no feeder that will attract warblers. Plant a Black Cherry, though, and you’ve successfully created your warbler feeder because of all the caterpillars and other insects this tree supports.
Abundant fruits ripen by August, just in time for early fall migrants. More birds feed on these fruits than the fruits, seeds, cones, or catkins of any other native tree. Richard DeGraaf’s excellent book, Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Attracting Birds, lists 45 species and I’ve witnessed an additional 8 species feeding on Black Cherry fruits at Cape May, bringing the total to 53 birds that depend on these fruits. At Cape May, where millions of migrants concentrate each fall, I’ve delighted in watching many of these birds eating Black Cherry fruits: Northern Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy and Downy Woodpecker, Great-crested Flycatcher, Gray Catbird, Veery and all the other thrushes, Cedar Waxwing, Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Orchard and Baltimore Oriole, Scarlet and Summer Tanager, Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeak, Tennessee Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Cape May Warbler, and Black-throated Blue Warbler to name a few.
Doug Tallamy shares that 429 native butterflies and moths lay their eggs on Black Cherry. Red-spotted Purples lay their gem-like egg on the tippy tip of a Black Cherry leaf. I’ve counted up to eighteen Red-spotted Purples on my dishes of gooey fruit and it’s always fun and poignant to realize that this beautiful butterfly is so abundant in our yard because of the Black Cherries that both we and the birds have planted.
In my early days as a naturalist, when I’d find a female Silk Moth laying eggs, I’d raise the caterpillars in a screened terrarium so that I could study the full life cycle. One spring I placed a newly emerged female Cecropia Moth on a Black Cherry tree leaf. Within an hour she’d attracted a mate. Some other favorite leps that lay their eggs on Black Cherry include Promethea Moth, Hummingbird Clearwing, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, and Coral Hairstreak.
This winter go on a Promethea Moth cocoon hunt by searching your Black Cherry trees.
When the average person learns that 456 butterflies and moths (including 27 nonnative species) lay their eggs on Black Cherry they envision a tree defoliated right before their eyes. The natural balance, nature’s checks and balances, includes legions of migrant warblers and other hungry insect-eating birds searching for and eating a large majority of these caterpillars.
I would be remiss not to mention our native Eastern Tent Caterpillars. These communal caterpillars build a silk web in Black Cherries, and several times during the day they fan out to feed on the leaves. They are more a nuisance than a threat to the tree. Their silk webs are unsightly to many, but they are a beacon to over 60 different birds, which feed on young tent caterpillars and feed them to their nestlings.
In comparison Bradford Pear is not native to North America, but a cultivar of Callery Pear (from China and Vietnam). They are highly invasive and popping up in the wild in 25 states. Bradford Pears are not with us for the long haul, often surviving only 25 years. They are very susceptible to storm damage during heavy snows, ice storms, high winds, and severe thunderstorms.
The many different species of birds (and good numbers of each) that feast on Black Cherry fruits spread Black Cherry across the landscape as the seeds pass through their system. Because of this, Black Cherries are often thought of as “weeds” by most nurseries, landscapers, and home owners. Instead, I think of each new Black Cherry seedling as a gift from the birds, a “freebie” to be cherished and as one of the most desirable native trees.
So, plant native Black Cherry, Prunus serotina, not Bradford Pear, and enjoy the fruits of your labor. If your local nurseries do not (or will not) carry it, persist and help create a demand for natives. Habitat gardeners will thank you and over 60 birds and 456 butterflies and moths will thank you.
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