Wild Cherry (Prunus avium L.) – Tree of the Year 2010
Wild cherry (sweet cherry) pleases the eye many times in the course of a year, especially in April when its bright blossom can be seen throughout the country. All kinds of commercial cherry cultivars can be traced back to varieties of wild cherry. In fact, the difference between cultivated and wild cherry is often slight. However, they all have in common a sea of flowers in spring, delicious fruit in summer, vivid colours in autumn, and beautiful bark in winter. The species is certainly able to satisfy even the highest expectations when it comes to beauty. Thus we are not surprised to find that according to a recent survey it is among the most popular ornamental and domestic trees.
There are three varieties or subspecies of wild cherry: the wild form ( var. avium), the gristle cherry (var. duracina) and the heart cherry (var. juliana).
Wild cherry as well as the cultivars can have an impressive amount of flowers: up to a million flowers a fully grown, free-standing tree can develop, offering a rich source of nectar to bees, bumble-bees and other insects. Thus cherry trees are greatly appreciated by bee-keepers. The flowers also form an important part of our sensual experience of spring.
Wild cherries can be found in forests and along their edges, but also free-standing in the landscape. It is not always easily to distinguish from the cultivars, but its fruit shows a noticeable difference, being much smaller in diameter (just 1 cm). The shape of its crown is more slender, and its trunk does not have the typical bulbous swelling cultivars have from grafting in about 2 m height.
For us humans, the fruit is very beneficial due to its nutrients, but it is also appreciated by animals. Before the drupe can mellow, however, many obstacles have to be overcome, such as late frost, hail, drought and rain during the flowering period as well as pests. Recently, a quite different use is being made of cherries – there are cherry stone spitting contests on a professional level, with state, national and world championships. The world record currently lies at 21.71 m.
So-called Barbara branches are cut in early December (December the 4th being Barbara‘s name day). If put in a vase, they will flower in time for Christmas, with some luck.
Remarkable in both wild cherry and its cultivars are their autumn colours. Covering shades from bright orange to fiery red, they highlight the autumnal landscape, recalling the North-American phenomenon of Indian Summer.
Wild cherry trees grow up to 30 m tall in a forest, it is 20 m if they are free-standing. They live to 150 years of maximum age. The trunk seldom gets bigger than 1 m in diameter directly above the roots. Avenues lined by cherry trees are very beautiful but have grown increasingly rare, for they are not the best choice for heavily used roads. Cherry trees beside side and farm roads are therefore worth preserving.
The species is quite modest in its needs for water and nutrients, it can even grow in extreme areas as a pioneer tree. As it can tolerate heat and drought better than many other tree species, it might well profit from climate change.
Currently, wild cherry trees are rarely found in the woods. This should change – very good prices can be obtained for the timber provided the trunk is not rotten inside. It is its reddish shade that makes the timber much sought for furniture or precious veneers.
Old trunks can be colonised by rare insects such as the stag beetle.
Commercial cultivars for fruit-growing are created by grafting the best flowering branches to a wild cherry. The Romans brought cultivars to central Europe soon after the beginning of our reckoning. About 20 kg of fruit a year can be obtained from a single tree. The global cherry harvest lies at about 2,000,000 t. Germany brings in the largest amount in Europe (120,000 t). Before sweets were invented, it was a ripe cherry that would make a child’s heart beat faster.
Cherry trees are also very popular as ornamental trees. Cherry and walnut form a most noble combination of domestic trees in any garden, perfectly complementing one another in appearence as well as in use.
Cherry stones are even used for carving. If you cannot believe this you should visit Grünes Gewölbe, a museum in Dresden where you can admire 185 (!) faces carefully carved into a single stone, done in 1589. People obviously had much spare time in those days…
The merit of cherry stone pillows as a substitute for hot water bottles has recently been rediscovered: dried cherry stones are filled into a linen bag or pillow, then heated in the oven or microwave to warm up the bed or body – helping against cold feet as well as rheumatism, lumbago or any other pain. Many people swear by the refreshing sleep on a cherry stone pillow. It is also suitable for allergic people.
2010 being the year of the cherry, we should celebrate the cherry blossom as it has been done in Japan every spring for about a 1000 years, when the indigenous cherries turn the landscape into a sea of pink and white flowers. Usually there even is a holiday, the cherry blossom being regarded as the most important of all events in April.
Translation: WIEBKE ROLOFF