A flowering Bird Cherry Tree is a beautiful sight to behold and of all our flowering trees the cherry is just about the most famous of trees.
Although the vast majority of cherry trees come from the Far East, we actually have two native wild cherry trees of our own that are just as pretty, with the bird cherry being one of them.
Bird Cherry Tree – General Information
The bird cherry has many other names including black dogwood, hagberry and hog cherry, is a deciduous, bushy tree and is often found growing next to streams, hedgerows and wet woodland.
Apart from being a native tree to Great Britain, it is also found throughout Europe and northern Asia.
The bird cherry is generally seen as a shrub and usually grows to about 33 feet tall but can also grow into a tree of up to about 55 feet tall.
Although the bird cherry can be found planted in its native form, most of the specimen trees that you may see in parks, streets or gardens are cultivated varieties which have been specially selected due to their flowers, leaves, growth or habitat.
Description of a Bird Cherry Tree
The bark of the bird cherry is smooth, has a very pungent acrid smell and is a greyish brown in colour.
The leaves are oval shaped tapering to a point, are dark green in colour but with a paler underside and have a toothed edge. They turn a beautiful red, then yellow before falling in the autumn.
The flowers of the bird cherry appear in May and June in large clusters of up to forty flowers on each pendulous raceme making a stunning spring display.
The white flowers each have five petals, contain both male and female reproductive parts and have a strong almond scent.
Once the flowers have been pollinated by various insects they develop into a red fruit which ripens through the summer, eventually turning a dark purple-black.
The fruit which is roughly the size of a pea is edible but has a very bitter taste and contains a poisonous stone.
Some birds such as the Robin, Redwing, Blackbird and Fieldfare love them (as the trees name suggests), providing them with a valuable source of vitamin C and other minerals.
The seed is not digested by the birds and is therefore distributed far and wide through their droppings.
Apart from being an important food source for birds, many small mammals benefit from any of the fallen fruit.
Cultivation of a Bird Cherry Tree
The bird cherry is a hardy tree and will grow well in most moist soils, but in nature, it has a preference for damp limestone soil and to ensure that it receives enough moisture and grows best by a stream.
In the wild and provided the soil is moist enough; the bird cherry will often be found growing in thickets and woodlands.
Propagation can be done by seed, grafting or budding.
Pests and Diseases of the Bird Cherry Tree
The bird cherry can be susceptible to pest damage from bullfinches, aphids and caterpillars.
Diseases that may affect this tree are blossom wilt, silver leaf and bacterial canker.
Pruning of a Bird Cherry Tree
A bird cherry tree does not typically need pruning as it forms its own natural shape but if the tree has silver leaf disease, then pruning should be done during the middle of summer.
Medicinal Uses of the Bird Cherry Tree
In the past the bird cherry has been used to treat both kidney and gall stones and when dissolved with wine, for the treatment of coughs.
Other records show that the bird cherry has also been used as an eyewash for conjunctivitis, and to treat angina, bronchitis, anaemia and various inflammatory diseases.
It seems that nearly all parts of the tree have been used in the past to treat many different ailments.
The leaves and seed contain the poison hydrogen cyanide which gives the fruit its very bitter taste, and although if consumed when raw and in small quantities, it is unlikely to do any harm.
Too much may cause respiratory failure and in some cases even death, although when fully ripe they taste sweeter and if the seed is removed, then apparently they are safe to eat.
I do not suggest you do this without making 100% sure it is safe to do so!
Other Uses of the Bird Cherry Tree
The wood of the bird cherry tree is a light brownish red colour, polishes very well and has been used for making small objects such as wooden boxes, tool handles, and cask hoops and for carving.
The berries can be used for making jam and at one time were used for flavouring some alcoholic drinks. Apparently cherry brandy can easily be made from them.
Just fill a bottle with the berries to which you should add some sugar, top up the bottle with brandy and leave for a few months (again I do not recommend you try this without first checking that it would 100% safe to do so).
The bark produces a reddish brown dye and is used for dyeing fishing nets.
Today the bird cherry is mainly used as a specimen tree.
Interesting Facts about the Bird Cherry Tree
At one time the people of Scotland thought it was a witch’s tree and there were warnings not to use the tree for any purpose.
The foliage is toxic to all livestock but in particular to goats.
Due to the barks very unpleasant odour, it is said that the placing of bird cherry twigs in barns and other outbuildings can keep rodents at bay.
Article was written by Karen Arnold.
Edited by Conner D on 29/06/2019.