I’m sure you’ve heard of “black cherry,” either as a flavoring or as a type of wood. For me, the name evokes a certain flavor of candy. But did you know it’s a harvestable fruit here in Minnesota? Yes, it is. And this year’s harvest was outstanding.
I’d been waiting several years for a good crop of these cherries- perhaps 4 or 5. They were not something I went out of my way for, but I usually checked on a couple different trees at least once toward the end of each summer. Well, this year, it was clear conditions were somehow just right. Branches were full of green clusters by July all over in my area.
The first day I picked them this year was August 14th. And as of September 25th, there are some trees in the areas I frequent that still hang onto a sizable number of cherries. Since I don’t have previous experience with a heavy crop of black cherries, I cannot attest to whether or not the season is typically so long. But it does seem remarkable.
In all, I harvested about three gallons’ worth, of which less than one was made into jelly already. The rest are washed and frozen for experimentation this winter.
The Black Cherry is one of several Prunus species native to Minnesota. Its fruit is most like the Chokecherry’s, although that’s pretty much where the similarities end. As I stated in my post on chokecherries, there are several ways to tell them apart.
First, the size difference between the two trees is significant. The Black Cherry is a large tree, growing over 60 feet, while the Chokecherry is a small tree, usually only 10 or 15 feet in height. One can often find chokecherries on a slender specimen whose trunk is an inch or two in diameter, whereas black cherries come from fast-growing trees that quickly surpass that size and bear fruit that is mostly out of reach.
The second way to tell them apart is by the leaves: the Black Cherry’s leaves are narrower and more pointed (lanceolate) in comparison to the Chokecherry’s, whose leaves are more elliptical (if not obovate). Black cherry leaves are also fairly glossy on the upper surface, while chokecherry leaves appear more dull.
The third way to know which fruit one is looking at is to consider what part of the season it is. Chokecherries seem to ripen first, while summer is still in full swing and black cherries are still green and developing. Black cherries seem to ripen weeks later, when a fall chill is creeping into the night air. It is difficult to be exact about the timing as it can vary.
Like most other Prunus species, P. serotina will be found in upland areas, in the woods or perhaps bordering forest openings. Anecdotally, I have observed that they are also eager to sprout up in grasslands, along with ash, boxelder, and sometimes cottonwoods. Like the others, they typically succumb to prescribed burning.
If you go out to harvest some black cherries, you’ll do well if you keep some things in mind. First, be willing to do some searching. As previously mentioned, the Black Cherry is a large tree, and some-if not most- will not offer any fruit within reach. Once you’ve found an area where they’re growing, look for a shorter tree that you can reach up into and bend the branches down. Be careful, of course, but they will be flexible within reason.
Second, you may need to go out a few times to collect the quantity you desire. Unlike chokecherries and plums, which ripen mostly at the same time (especially on a single tree), black cherries are more what I call a “rolling harvest.” This is when some fruits are ripe while others on the same branch, stem, cane, etc., are still developing (think raspberry, strawberry, etc.). You don’t see whole bunches of ripe cherries so often until the harvest is nearing its end. At least that has been my limited experience. (See top pic for example)
Third, the longer they ripen on the tree, the less bitter and better the flavor. You’ll definitely only want the darkest specimens, but don’t wait until they are shriveling up. Even when they’re ripe, they won’t necessarily let go of the stem easily. So take what comes off and don’t force it, or you’ll end up with bitter cherries and/or ruptured fruits. Just hold the cluster in your hand, pull gently, and tease the ripe cherries off with your fingers. Sometimes you’ll get a handful, and sometimes you’ll get one or two.
Like chokecherries, there is some inherent bitterness. They are not exactly Bing cherries, although they aren’t wildly tart like pin cherries either. Due to their size and sugar needs, I’m working under the hypothesis that using them like chokecherries will yield the best results. As I already mentioned, we made one batch of delicious jelly using my chokecherry recipe. I don’t see why some of my other recipes- like cherry lemonade- wouldn’t work. I hope to report on my experiments sometime next year.
My chokecherry recipe page is a good place to start trying things out. Let me know in the comments what you like to do with your black cherries.
If you’re interested in learning about more foraged foods, please visit my What to Forage page.