Black Cherry

Plant This, Not That: New Jersey Natives Edition

Black Cherry, Prunus serotina, vs Bradford Pear

Cecropia Moths are one of 456 butterflies and moths that lay their eggs on Black Cherry

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.

BlackCherry flowers-w-sigBlack 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.

BlackCherry fruit-w-sig

53 birds feed on the fruits of Black Cherry

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.

Red-spPurple egg-w-signature

Red-spotted Purple egg


Red-spotted Purples on our fruit dish

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.

Promethea Moth-w-sig

Promethea Moth (female)

PrometheaMoth cocoon-w-wig

See how many Promethea Moth cocoons you can find in your Black Cherries this winter

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.


60 birds feed on young Eastern Tent 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.


Bradford Pear - poor choice for over 500 (wildlife) reasons !

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.

© 2011 – 2012, Pat Sutton. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Prefect choice, Pat., black cherry is a wonderful tree as are its cousins the chokecherry and pin cherry. The one thing I’d add about all three cherries is that they should be planted away from patios, decks, foot paths and driveways as the fruit and bird droppings can be extremely messy.

    • says

      Hi Sue, YES, Chokecherry & Pin Cherry are also excellent choices, though they are not as widespread (neither grow in southern NJ, so I’m not familiar with them). You certainly are right about picking “just” the right place to plant your Black Cherry . . . for instance, NOT over your clothesline (unless you want clothes that appear to be tie dye).
      Pat Sutton recently posted..One Woman’s Wild Life

  2. says

    Thank you so much for reminding me about this great native tree. Here in south central Kansas, we are just a little outside of it’s native range (it naturally occurs 2 counties east of here), but that’s certainly close enough to give it a go! Now I just need to figure out where to site it….
    Gaia gardener recently posted..Blue

  3. says

    Pat, Thanks for the reminder about this tree. I know it’s native to our area so I’ve got to find one to put in the landscape. I’m all about attracting more birds, so this’ll be a great addition. Can’t have too many warblers.

    Hal Mann recently posted..Recent Inspiration

  4. says

    Pat, thanks for a great summary of the benefits of black cherry. It’s common in Kentucky but not appreciated nearly enough for all its benefits to moths, butterflies, and birds. I’ll use the facts from your post to do what I can to change that. I’ll also be keeping a closer watch on these trees.
    Betty Hall recently posted..Frost Flowers #2

  5. says

    Sounds wonderful and I remember them from childhood at our vacation house on Long Island, albeit not all fond since that is where all the “inch worms” hung from when we visited on the weekends, and I mean by the THOUSANDS creating a veil that no one wanted to walk through :)

    No specimens are listed for my county in FL (although that’s not all that unusual) but since it is shown native for counties east and west of me, I am going to see if I can’t find one and add it to the landscape when the time comes for another new addition (recently bought a chickasaw plum)

    Great advice!
    Loret recently posted..Bug Gangs

  6. says

    Hi Loret, I remember those inch worms too from my childhood, though had forgotten all about them till your note. Neat that you’ve added a Chickasaw Plum to your landscape. I’ll bet a lot of the same birds and butterflies that use Black Cherry also use Chickasaw Plum!
    Pat Sutton recently posted..One Woman’s Wild Life

  7. says

    Wonderful selection Pat! Black Cherry is one of my favorites and i did not even have to plant it . . . only rescue it from brambles and vines. It stands serpentine like in an open field with two oaks framing it from either side . . . at a distance. The magical tree is one of the main features in my landscape and as you say the birds love it. I confess to never having seen them enjoying the berries but that could be for the dense foliage. There are often flocks cedar and bohemian waxwings, goldfinches, robins and bluebirds atop the tree in winter and throughout the year. Baltimore orioles love to weave their nest in our tree and I have seen raccoon families up in it eating the berries. I would love to catch the orioles feeding their young right from the clusters hanging next to their nest. My heart broke when I saw that the tree had split in half last winter . . . I hope it continues to survive and heal but I fear it cannot be for long. Your photos are fabulous and what a great one of the mating Cecropia! I so enjoyed this article!!
    Carol Duke recently posted..December Sky Delights Swallowing Moon and Sun

    • says

      Hi Carol, love the image of your Black Cherry adorned with Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings and other goodies. Keep looking and I’ll bet you’ll spot the adult Baltimore Orioles reaching over for a tasty berry to feed the young in their next in your Black Cherry. You may be surprised how hardy your Black Cherry is despite the split. At least I hope so! Fun that so many of us share this tree as one of our favorites. If only we could convince mainstream nurseries.
      Pat Sutton recently posted..Black Cherry vs Bradford Pear

  8. Ruth says

    I love P. serotina as a spring-flowering tree along roadside hedgerows and woodland edges…first to flower here is Amelanchier arborea, then the Prunus.

    Thank goodness Bradford pear is not as widely planted here yet…I’m sure we will find it escaping into our untended places within my lifetime, however. I’ve seen it in profusion along interstate highways thru Delaware, MD, and VA in April and cringe to think of it displacing the natives for which NE fall foliage is famous…including wild black cherry.

  9. says

    Pat – thanks for showcasing this tree – wonderful post! You still see black cherry growing wild on the edge of farm fields in our area of central MA, although the invasive multiflora rose is starting to win that battle :( We raised a cecropia moth caterpillar this summer on some black cherry foliage and we’re looking forward to releasing the adult moth when it emerges from its silky cocoon in the spring!
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..When Life Gives You Storm Damage, Make Habitat!

  10. Nina Fuqua says

    This may sound crazy, but I bought my house because of the presence of so many native trees including Black Cherry on my yard. The birds including hoot owls hawks, osprey and the usual small birds are such a source of pleasure and satisfaction knowing that every native plant makes a difference to them and the insects too!

  11. David Lord says

    Wonderful article, Pat! Black Cherry is far and away my favorite tree: their bottle-brushes are beautiful! I’m happy to report that my home street near you is lined with Black Cherry Trees!

  12. Stephanie says

    Hi, I have wanted to plant Black Cherry for these reasons, but my yard is really small. Does anyone know if it can be coppiced okay?


    • says

      Hi Stephanie, I’ll bet you can keep it prunned to fit in the spot you have for it. The birds seeded/planted several Georgia Hackberries in my yard in a spot where a shrub is just right but a tree would be too big. So I have brutally pruned them year after year and kept them shrub sized. They’ve flourished, sending out numerous leafy branches each year. Birds perch all over them all year long (they’re near our feeding station) and I love watching American Snouts, Hackberry Emperors, and Tawny Emperors laying eggs on them. Being shrub-sized it’s easy to spot the eggs and caterpillars and take photos. Good luck! Pat
      Pat Sutton recently posted..Garden Rant features “Tour of Private Cape May Monarch Gardens”


  1. […] Pat Sutton’s post about Prunus serotina (wild black cherry)  jogged my memory about another fascinating aspect of this species and its relationship to ants. Young leaves of P. serotina are tender and juicy and attract various leaf-eating insects.  However, this plant is smart enough to put up a round-about defense to being devoured. […]

  2. […] Extremely Fragrant Flowers Large Showy Floral Display Excellent Early Season Pollinator Plant Produces Edible Fruit Likes Dry Conditions Small Sized Ornamental Tree Provides Wildlife Habitat & Cover for Birds Another Great Alternative to the Invasive Bradford Pear […]

  3. […] Mourning Cloak and Hackberry Emperor and Tawny Emperor on Dwarf Hackberry, Red-spotted Purple on Black Cherry, Tiger Swallowtail on Tulip Tree, Pipevine Swallowtails on Dutchman’s Pipe, Cloudless Sulphur on […]

  4. […] Black Cherry “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.” By Pat Sutton […]

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