A couple days ago, my daughter found a single cherry. I could not have been more elated.
It was our first Sand cherry. We’d been searching hard for two whole days, covering almost 10 miles on foot, in three distinct parts of Minnesota. The triumph was not so much the harvest (ultimately a couple dozen cherries) as it was the successful conclusion to our foraging quest.
There are several varieties of Sand cherry, Minnesota being home to two. According to the Minnesota Wildflowers website, there is some debate regarding the breakdown of varieties (if not species). But for now the general consensus is that they all still fit under the umbrella of Prunus pumila as one species. That’s probably good for our purposes, because making taxonomic distinctions is often difficult. Foraging-wise, there would probably be no point.
In Minnesota, Sand cherry is an inhabitant of dry— if not barren—places. Literally, think sand. The map available on Minnesota Wildflowers gives the impression that it resides almost exclusively along the prairie/forest transition zone, but the Bell Museum Biodiversity Atlas database shows a range that includes the north central and Arrowhead regions as well.
Sand cherry leaves are rich green and semi-glossy on top, lighter underneath, with a regular pattern of small teeth that is easily recognized. Twigs are often reddish. Identification in the field can be tricky as they share a leaf shape with many other species, namely willows. However, those willows are usually larger and/or have un-toothed leaf margins.
Sand cherry fruits are the largest of Minnesota’s four native cherry species. As I recently told some family members, they are about the size of garbanzo beans. There is a pit in the middle, of course, characteristic of cherries and plums. Unlike our other native cherries, however, the amount of flesh surrounding the pit is fairly substantial and fleshy. It reminded me of a bing cherry in that way, albeit much smaller.
Fruits are green while developing. As they ripen, that changes to burgundy and ends fairly black. They are easy to spot once fully ripe.
As far as flavor goes, Sand cherry could be the least desirable of our Prunus species. Those I ate fresh in the field had only minimal bitterness—and minimal flavor. I won’t say they’re all like that, but be prepared to be underwhelmed. I’m optimistic that experimenting with a large harvest (if you can get one) could tease out more cherry flavor, but I’m not going out of my way to test that theory.
Find Your Own
In my quest to find P. pumila this year, I was most successful in the drier places of east central, west central, and northwest Minnesota. Plant specimens were most plentiful in poor soils and where density of grasses and forbs were lower. The cherries themselves were difficult to find. Perhaps this is an off-year, or perhaps drought conditions are impacting Sand cherries as they appear to be impacting our other cherries.
In east central Minnesota, we found some on a parcel of state forest land that had been clear cut approximately six years ago. The soil there is a fine sand. Other vegetation included big bluestem, pin cherry, willows, blueberries, and red pines (planted). Such young pine plantations would be a decent starting place, in my opinion.
In western Minnesota, we found plenty of specimens in state parks. In one park, they were plentiful on the dry ridge tops and knobs in the remnant prairie. Their preferred habitat was quickly evident: where it was too dry for anything else except little bluestem. There weren’t as many to be found in the other park. However, it was clear they also preferred well-drained locations.
If you’re interested in learning about more foraged foods, please visit the What to Forage page.