by jim mcdonald

"Wild cherry" is a catch-all name for a variety of trees of varying sizes in the Prunus genus.  The most recognized of these are the stately black cherry tree, Prunus serotina, and the shrubby is-it-a-tree-or-a-bush chokecherry, Prunus virginiana

Black cherry grows in many different forest types through virtually all of the East and much of the Southern United States.  Mature trees are easily distinguished by their dark flaky bark, the color of charcoal with undertones of the russet inner bark and rich red heartwood that lie within.  Black cherry's leaves are elliptical, pointed, and serrated; its multiple white flowers, then black berries (drupes!), hang down in clusters called racemes.  Those same trees, when younger, may be confused with black birch (sometimes even called "cherry birch") due the their similar bark, leaves and flowers, but the fruit is a clear indicator (as birch doesn't ever seem to produce cherries...).  If confusion arises among naked winter trees, one can merely scrape at the inner bark: black birch will smell strongly and divinely of wintergreen. 

Wild Cherry

Chokecherry thrives throughout most of the US, advantageously forming thickets around edges... of woods, of ponds, of streams, of ditches.  Chokecherry can grow up to resemble its tree of a cousin, though these outliers are often shorter lived and less common than its normal thickety self.  The bark is grey to a rich red-brownish (can I say "russet" again?), and marked, as is black cherry's younger bark, by pale lenticels (to imagine what a lenticel is, just picture pale "---" marks scattered horizontally across the bark).  The flowers, berries and leaves resemble those of black cherry, but chokecherry's leaves are more rounded and the fruits aren't always quite so black.

By and far, the bark is the most widely used part of the plant.  If collected from older flaky trunks, the outer bark must be removed from the inner (done most easily with a drawknife), but on smaller branches, if the outer bark is insubstantial it may be left on.  Several sources suggest that the bark is best harvested after the tree flowers, unlike most barks, which are ideally harvested in early spring.  While the use of the leaves is generally discouraged due to fear of cyanogenic compounds, they too can be used.    What?  Explain "cyanogenic"?  Sure:  The leaves, shoots, bark, and seed kernals of wild cherry species contain the cyanogenic glycosides amygdalin and prunasin.  These compounds are stored in the plant, but when damage of some kind occurs they are released, acted upon by enzymes, and as a result release hydrogen cyanide, a potent and definitely dangerous toxin.  But, while that does sound rather off putting, let us consider the insight of Michael Moore (the brilliant herbalist, not the movie guy), who attests to the safety of wild cherry, noting "...chokecherry bark presents a potentially dangerous group of physiological responses in a completely safe package.  The shadow of hydrocyanic acid is still there... but it is completely safe and diffused.  The mechanism might make a pharmacologist cringe because it so closely that of true cyanotic poisons, but once again, it is safe and reliable for even small children.  It has been used safely for centuries, probably millennia, in such diverse places as Siberia, Germany, the lakeside villages of Mandan, the mountains of northern New Mexico, and the valleys of Kentucky."  The phytochemically gifted herbalist Lisa Ganora feels similarly: "Wild Cherry bark contains extremely low levels of prunasin which is classified as a 'cyanogenic glycoside', meaning it can release hydrocyanic acid (HCN) - however, since cyanide is a natural waste product of protein metabolism in the body, we have endogenous enzymes that detoxify it - they can handle up to 1 mg/hour with no adverse effects to the body at all.  It's not a persistent toxin.  Also, the human digestive system has suboptimal pH for cyanide formation, meaning that of the amount of glycoside you do ingest, not much HCN is actually released.

So Cherry bark per se is not a problem.  Browsing on wilted Cherry leaves will kill a cow or horse though - because there are much higher levels of cyanogenic glycosides in the leaves, and wilting is an enzymatic process that degrades them, releasing a large amount of HCN.  Also the animal is ingesting large quantities of plant material.  This came to the attention of veterinary toxicologists during the depression in the Appalachians, when the stock sometimes had nothing else to eat."  Herbalist Kiva Rose Hardin addresses some of these concerns, stating "I too have read all those herb books that say to never ever ingest the cherry leaf any which way or you’ll die.  And more specifically, that you should only use the dried bark that has been collected in fall.  I’ve used fresh bark tincture from spring and I’ve been eating the leaves and flowers all spring and I’m not dead yet, nor have I noticed any adverse effects whatsoever.  It probably would be unwise to eat a pile a leaves for breakfast, but you know, considering the taste, I don’t think you’d manage it anyhow."  Aside from these perspectives, we can look to wild cherry long established and widespread use as an indicator of its safety.

Back to harvesting: a lot of people feel decidedly freaked out by the prospect of harvesting the bark of trees.  Somehow, it seems like a bigger ethical dilemma to us to harvest a tree than it does to harvest a smaller plant.  I know many folk who routinely harvest (and in so doing, kill) plants like dandelion who are totally freaked at the thought of killing a tree to harvest its bark.  Is this because it's bigger?  Or because we feel that trees live longer that we grant trees more "life value" to them than we do to smaller plants (some of which can get quite old indeed)?  Feeling comfortable and confident in harvesting is important, and it's a fruitful quandary to sit with, and examine one's feelings and biases. 

There are, though, ways to work around this while you're sussing out complex philosophical issues:

• You can often effectively harvest branch bark as opposed to cutting the tree down at the trunk.  If you're collecting chokecherry it's mostly a bunch of branches anyway.

• You can contact tree cutting services and ask if you can snoop around through their wood piles for black cherry (you'd be unlikely to find chokecherry there because, to my knowledge, no one is heating their home with chokecherry and it was mostly likely thrown into a chipper).

• (my favorite:) You can, after storms, carouse through the woodlands and see if any trees have come down.  In my habitat, black cherry trees rarely come down in storms, but sometimes other trees fall onto them and break or bend them down in a way that they're unlikely to recover from.  The added bonus here is the time you spend traipsing through the woods after storms.

Many sources, and even many herbalists I know, say that after dried wild cherry bark "doesn't store well"/"loses most of it's potency"/"goes inert"/"stops working in x many weeks or months"... this is not my experience dealing with barks I've harvested, which have remained quite effective for over two years.  The keynote indicator of potency is a rich, cherry/almond aroma from the bark after sitting in cold to barely warm water for awhile (the aroma develops more slowly the colder the water is).  If that's there, it works, regardless of what any otherwise brilliant source might say.

When considering wild cherry, most will immediately think of its use in the address of coughs and colds; indeed, such a staple it was that when plant medicine was being replaced by chemical drugs "wild cherry" was retained as the flavor of cough syrups and drops, because, well... that's just what those things were supposed to taste like.  The actual bark, though, does much more than provide flavor.  Wild cherry is a respiratory relaxant/antispasmodic and, in varying degrees, an astringent tonic.  A cooling sedative to lung tissue, it excels when heat and irritability undermine healthy expectoration.

Now, here's where I want to paint a little word picture that really sums up wild cherry's respiratory sphere of influence perfectly; that's really what all herb writers want to do when we write these things.  But, darnit, Michael Moore did it so well I can't resist quoting him: "Chokecherry or wild cherry bark is a simple sedative for cardiopulmonary excitability.  If your child is lying in bed, glowing a dull infrared and breathing rapidly with a dry cough, give him/her chokecherry.  That hot, vibratile pulse of blood through the lungs can be counterproductive, not nourishing the membranes as well as needed and maybe even slowing the defensive responses to a viral infection.  The hectic breathing can dry out mucous membranes and harden secretions, making them little more than dried blobs adhering to the bronchial membranes---difficult enough for an adult to expectorate, very difficult for a respiratory-impatient child to handle."

Yeah, Moore was awesome.

I use wild cherry for coughs predominantly as a syrup, which is an outstanding for mixing with other herbs.  Making tea?  I can stir syrup into that.  Dreadful tasting tinctures?  Put them in the syrup!  I use wild cherry a lot for all kinds of coughs, the only contraindication being that, as the Physio-Medicalist William Cook wrote, "Depressed or sluggish conditions of the system never call for its use."  We can accurately translate that to: don't give it if the cough reflex or respiratory tissues are weak or exhausted.

Because I tend to custom formulate for each individual I work with, I don't have a very specific cough syrup blend.  That said, I do have base formulas that I work off of and tweak to a given person's needs.  One of these is a blend of wild cherry syrup and a nice gooey cold infusion of marshmallow root... to this I'll add two "squirts" of osha tincture per ounce.  If that person has a really dry cough, I may up the quantity of marshmallow.  If they have a damper cough, I'll lessen the marshmallow and perhaps increase the osha a bit.  Of course, other herbs are added or substituted as called for by presentation or inspiration.

I also use a spoonful of wild cherry syrup along with 1 drop each of lobelia and bloodroot, taken as needed for croup and croup-like coughs.  Both lobelia and bloodroot are low dose botanicals, and while a couple drops is quite a small dose, it's better to take more smaller doses than to increase the amount of tinctures per dose, unless under some clever herbalist's guidance.

Another favorite base formula involves mixing a squirt or two or three of valerian tincture and maybe another squirt of fennel into some wild cherry syrup.  I use this as a mild cough suppressant.  Wait, what?  Suppressing coughs?  Isn't that the antithesis of what we're supposed to do as herbalists working within a holistic framework?  Well, not necessarily.  I use this approach mostly when coughing is preventing someone from sleeping, and I feel like the benefits from some sleep outweigh any negatives from suppressing the cough reflex a bit.

For many, the use of wild cherry stops here.  Indeed, too little has been written about its uses outside the lungs to inspire broader usage, but indeed it possesses an abundance of potential.  As stated in our discussion of respiratory issues, wild cherry is a cooling sedative... but what does that mean?  We use "cooling herbs" to "sedate heat".  "Heat", when spoken of with regards to western herbal energetics, is associated with increased activity, "hyper-"conditions.  The "sedative" effect of an herb needn't be constrained to the central nervous system... we can have excess activity in divers systems, organs and tissues throughout the body.  Traditionally, this was the state commonly referred to by the word "irritation".  So, "sedative" herbs like wild cherry lessen irritation by quelling the overactivity giving rise to it.

Eclectic and Physio-Medical sources used wild cherry's ability to lessen irritation and its astringent tonic properties to address mucosal imbalances in the digestive and urinary tracts.  Cook said of wild cherry, "For chronic gastritis with indigestion... it is not surpassed by any tonic; and will be received by the stomach when most other tonics are objectionable..."  The Eclectic Finley Ellingwood wrote "As a remedy for dyspepsia (indigestion of the upper GI) it has many advocates.  It is a tonic to the stomach improving digestion by stimulating the action of the gastric glands.  It soothes irritability of the stomach from whatever cause."

When we think about irritation in the gastrointestinal tract, and specifically about the ability to treat overactivity and irritation, we may begin to ponder a wealth of opportunity to assess wild cherry's utility in addressing some of the many common digestive ailments associated with immune hyper-reactivity.  Though I've long used peach leaf and twig tincture as a means of lessening immunological jumpiness, I'm still only beginning to use cherry here to compare and contrast its effects.  Thomas Easley shares, "While it’s primary organ affinity is the lungs, its actions extend to the mucosa in general, and to the liver.  I’ve used it to sedate mucosal overactivity from allergies with consistent success. I’ve also used it to manage the symptoms of Lupus flares when I was out of Peach twig/leaf (my preferred remedy), and reduce liver swelling in autoimmune hepatitis.  If increased immune reactivity is an issue, consider Wild Cherry for symptomatic relief."  I learned from Matthew Wood to try wild cherry for rashes and skin irritaton, and found it usually an effective soother, if not quite healer of such maladies.  Kiva Rose adds, "I've found that our Prunus serotina (I say ours mostly because I've only rarely used Prunus spp. from anywhere else in the country) surpasses Prunus persica (peach) in moderating histamine response, particularly in venomous bites and stings."

Like its relative hawthorne, wild cherry is also used for cardiac issues.  Ellingwood stated that "Wild cherry is popular in the treatment of mild cases of palpitation, especially those of a functional character, or from reflex causes. Palpitation from disturbed conditions of the stomach is directly relieved by it.  It is said to have a direct tonic influence upon the heart when the muscular structure of that organ is greatly weakened, where there is dilatation or valvular insufficiency, especially if induced by prolonged gastric or pulmonary disease."  Matthew Wood has picked up these lost threads and encouraged us to explore these potentials, declaring "Wild Cherry bark acts upon the cardio-vascular system, equalizing the circulation and reducing the irritation and congestion which would encumber the heart.  The combination of sweet and bitter indicates a remedy that is especially nutritive, as both these flavors stimulate the secretions of the mouth, stomach and digestive system.  Bitterness is associated with the heart and circulation as well, since it reduces irritation and fever.  The nourishing influence indicated by the sweet flavor is directed, as it were, towards the heart.  This is joined by the astringency, which also tones up the heart.  Prunus serotina not only reduces irritation but nourishes, tonifies and strengthens the heart muscle... Wild Cherry is the American Indian version of Crataegus (Hawthorn), which is also a member of the Rosaceae family used in heart and digestive problems.”

Wild Cherry

I consider using wild cherry for a heart prone to reactivity (whether purely physical or in response to mental and emotional stimuli), and perhaps responding with palpitations or, eventually, exhaustion.  Heeding Cook's warning about not using wild cherry in "Depressed or sluggish conditions", one could balance its sedative activity with any number of warming circulatory stimulants.

Separations between the body, the heart, the mind and one's emotions are, well... imaginary.  Wild cherry can exert a not-quite-nervine but balanced calming effect particularly when mental or emotional hyper-reactivity dominate symptoms.  It's my impression that it acts more constitutionally here, producing a more notable calming effect in people with "excess" tendencies, and not acting as strongly outside that constitution.

The preparation of wild cherry bark defies normal patterns.  Despite common beliefs about the need to decoct barks with higher heat for a longer time, wild cherry loses much of its virtue when treated such, and becomes very very astringent in the process.  Ideally, the dried bark should be infused in cold, cool, or just barely kinda warm water for several hour or overnight.  The higher the heat, the more tannins.  The more tannins the more astringent.  An amazing preparation can be obtained by a cold water percolation, a process normally associated with tincture making.  I learned this from William Cook's Physio-Medical Dispensatory: "Moisten five ounces of coarsely powdered prunus with cold water, and let it stand twelve hours, (or six hours in warm weather;) transfer to a percolator, and gradually add water till a pint of liquid has been obtained."

Either the cold infusion or the percolation can be used to make a syrup.  While most of us make syrups with honey, if you want to be super crazy decadent, try making your syrup with maple sugar... gadzooks, that's insanely good.  I add 1 part wild cherry infusion or percolation to 1 part maple sugar or honey.  This is not adequate to preserve it indefinitely.  If you want to make a shelf stable syrup that needs no refrigeration, you'll need to used refined white sugar, and probably at least twice as much.  While it will keep, when made with less processed forms of sugar, in the refrigerator for weeks or months, I usually make up a larger batch and keep it frozen till I need it.  Then, I can just run it under hot water to thaw rather than waiting the several hours needed to prepare it.  My friend Briana Wiles simply infuses fresh cherries and/or spring flower blossoming twigs directly into honey.

I also make the tincture differently than normal, allowing the water in the menstruum to hydrolyze the bark before adding the alcohol.  So, let's say I have 4 ounces of bark.  I'd put that in a quart jar along with 12 ounces of cold to just barely warm water (try different temperatures) and let it sit overnight.  In the morning, that cherry/almond aroma should be quite strong and enticing.  Now add 8 ounces of 95% alcohol.  Shake well to mix your menstruums and let macerate for a few weeks.  Because the alcohol will extract the tannins, the tincture is more astringent than just cold water preparations, and it's one of the more likely tinctures to get all mucky and sludgy over time as the tannins precipitate out of solution.  Adding 5% glycerin to the mix will help stabilize the tannins in solution and lessen their precipitation (personally I find glycerin sickly sweet, but it does work well here). 

Plenty of other people make the tincture as is usual, using vodka or often brandy.  Add some honey, sugar or glycerin and you can call it an elixir.

contraindications and considerations...

While I feel the fresh and dried bark and leaves are safe for use, the cyanogenic compounds do increase notably while the plant is wilting, especially in the leaves.  If using the fresh plant in medicine making, let it be very fresh.  If using the dried plant, let it be fully dried. 

Aviva Romm lists wild cherry as a teratogen (an agent that can cause birth defects in pregnancy) in her books, I believe this is because of the presence of cyanogenic glycosides and I've not found any evidence indicating actual wild cherry bark preparations (as opposed to prunasin or amygdalin) causing harm in pregnancy; Romm states "Plants in the Datura, Prunus, Sorghum, and Seneio genera may also contain teratogenic substances".  The American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook offers more open ended information, declaring that "No information on the safety of black cherry in pregnancy or lactation was identified in the scientific or traditional literature.  Although this review did not identify any concerns for use while pregnant or nursing, safety has not been conclusively established."  That said, pregnancy is a time that even the most radical of herbalists can become surprisingly conservative, and many will suggest avoiding its use out of a sense of "better safe than sorry".

The American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook, which is probably the most recent and comprehensive review of herbal safety information at the time of this writing, lists no known adverse events, side effects, or pharmacological considerations.

jim mcdonald offers a knowledge of herbalism that blends western folk and indigenous views with the Vitalist traditions of the 19th century, presented through story, humor and common sense. He has taught classes throughout the US, hosts the website www.herbcraft.org and has written for Plant Healer Magazine, the Journal of Ontario Herbalist Association and Llewelyn's Herbal Almanac. He is currently writing a "Great Lakes Herbal" and "Foundational Herbcraft". jim is a manic wildcrafter and medicine maker.