Friday, September 7, 2012

Beware the Cherry

By Jennifer Ailor, Master Naturalist

Black cherry is a fairly common tree in the Ozarks’ woodlands. The timber is valuable, and birds and other critters love the clusters of tiny bright red cherries in summer and fall.  But black cherry trees aren’t good for cattle and horses, and if you have any in your pastures or fencerows, they should be removed if you want to keep your livestock safe.

The problem is that the leaves of the tree, especially when wilted, can deprive livestock of oxygen if eaten. The leaves contain prunasin, a cyanide that can be fatal.  In conditions like this summer when trees are stressed by the heat and lack of water, wilting breaks down the prunasin and releases the cyanide, according to the University of Missouri Extension.  Symptoms of poisoning include gasping, weakness, excitement, dilated pupils, spasms, convulsions, coma and respiratory failure. Not a pretty sight.

Cherry bark- like potato chips
When removing cherry trees, which have a tendency to sprout, the Extension recommends promptly applying a systemic herbicide to the fresh stump. And, of course, remove all branches and leaves that livestock might munch on. If you don’t want to use a herbicide, be prepared to cut sprouts for several years.

I have a small cherry in my horse pasture. You can bet its days are numbered.

Editor's note: 
Black cherry, Prunus serotina is a native tree whose range extends to the eastern border of Kansas.  It is a pioneer species, being one of the first trees to grow in disturbed soil, frequently replaced later by other species.  Imported to Europe, it has become naturalized and is now considered an invasive species in many forests.

A wide variety of moth larvae and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars feed on Prunus species.  In the spring you may locate black cherry and plums from a distance by the dense nests of the Eastern Tent Caterpillars which are dependent on trees in the Prunus and Malus (apple) family.  Early pioneers treasured black cherry fruit for making rum and brandy called cherry bounce.  We are more likely to encounter our bounce in a jelly or Black Forest chocolate cake.

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