Nifty Natives – Prunus pensylvanica, Pin Cherry

The early early spring weather has everything confused, it seems. Magnolia and serviceberry have bloomed and are blooming already, nearly three weeks ahead of schedule. Perennials are popping out of the ground, rhododendrons are out in full blast, and people are out on the hunt for tomato seedlings! Enjoy the early blooms and look forward to the later ones in the summer; the plants will get themselves back on a “normal” schedule soon enough.

One native plant that is right on time, though, is a new one in my repertoire. Not terribly flashy or stunning, but a welcome sight in my backyard. Prunus pensylvanica, the Pin or Fire Cherry, is a medium sized, fast growing tree that is native to North America, in all but the most western and southern states through the entirety of Canada. It is characterized by a distinctive and attractive reddish brown bark that is smooth, but dotted everywhere with oval lenticels along the stems and trunk. The bark will often peel off in long strips. Clusters of tiny ball-shaped buds all over the branches open into 1/2″ wide white blossoms just as the leaves begin to expand.

The foliage is a beautiful medium green, slender, and pointed, turning bright red and orange in the fall. The foliage serves as an important food source for many species of butterfly and moth caterpillars, and the flowers provide nectar to the earlier pollinators. Fruit is a small, dark red drupe, with a stone nearly as large as the fruit itself. The flesh of the fruits can be used to make jellies and preserves, but are more beneficial as a food source for animals. The seeds themselves are dispersed by animals and can remain dormant in seed banks under the soil for as many as 50 to 100 years, until conditions are right for their germination. Though it takes time for seeds to sprout, it is a fast-growing tree, reaching heights of up to 10 feet in just two years. Height can reach 30 to 50 feet, and trunk diameter can be up to a foot, though it is generally much smaller in the forest ecosystem.

Pin cherries will often form small colonies or thickets where they are growing, and will also propagate by seed. The seed is unique in that it has an extremely thick seed coat, allowing it to remain unsprouted in the ground for years. The other common name for this plant, the Fire Cherry, comes from the conditions in which the seed banks will break dormancy and sprout. Fires will generally kill colonies of this tree, but provide the conditions to stimulate germination of the seed banks. The thick coat protects the seeds themselves from extreme heat, but allows for water to penetrate, and nutrients from the ash residue will feed the new seedlings. Pin cherry thickets will often dominate newly-burned areas, providing erosion protection and nutrient stabilization to newly bare soils.

Pin cherries are plagued by the same issues as much of the Rosaceae family; uglynest caterpillars, Japanese beetles, and certain fungi are fond of them, but less so than many of the non-native species. Black knot can be a problem, but that can be controlled by selective pruning. Spring flowers and fall color definitely make this tree an enjoyable part of the native landscape, and the bird and animal life it attracts are a definite bonus.