Bitter Cherry

From the coast to the Rockies, this native cherry is a magnet for birds and a vision in the garden.

Credit: Richard Hebda

With misty clusters of white blossoms followed by red or nearly black berries, this natural beauty is a magnet for avian wildlife.

As many people return to a more natural form of gardening, using fewer or no pesticides or making gardens with a wild look, they also think of attracting wildlife into the yard. For most folk wildlife means birds and perhaps a few butterflies. Among our native cherries, all popular with birds, the bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata), also known as bird cherry, is an excellent magnet for feathered creatures. Bitter cherries range in size from a large shrub about 2 m (6 ft.) tall to a medium-sized tree 15 to 20 m (50 to 65 ft.) tall. Plants east of the coastal mountains tend to have a shrubby form, whereas those west of the mountains grow into trees. Branches range from smooth to densely hairy on new growth, and the bark of young trees and twigs may be a striking reddish purple. Branch ends bear many 3- to 8-cm-long (1- to 3-in.) leaves. These tend to be rounded and often lined with small teeth. Three to 10 white flowers occur in small open clusters. Each flower has five petals arranged around the edge of a shallow hairy cup. Flowers are about 1 cm (1⁄2 in.) across, holding about 20 small anthers that surround a single pistil. Bitter cherries bloom in the spring just after the leaves have appeared, as early as April on the coast and as late as June in the Interior. Small red to nearly black cherries follow after. The pit is usually large compared to the soft tissue, which most often tastes bitter, hence the common name.

Bitter cherry bark Bitter Cherry Bark

Bitter cherries cover a wide range in B.C. from the coast straight through to the Rockies, northward to about the latitude of Prince George. The range extends southward to southern California and eastward to Montana. In dry Interior settings the habitat includes the edge of watercourses, but on the coast this species grows in moist to dry woods to mid elevations.

Along the coast, bitter cherry forms thickets of small trees in disturbed places. It seems to invade and thrive on burned or logged sites, especially on the east side of Vancouver Island. Bitter cherries are most easily propagated by sowing ripe seeds in the fall, either in the site where you want them or in pots for transplanting a year after sowing. Seeds need a cold period before sprouting. In many suburban coastal locations, especially around Victoria, seedlings seem to appear out of the blue, sown from bird droppings. Sprouting seeds can also be carefully dug up and moved in spring. Potted bitter cherries are available from specialist nurseries. Soft-wood cuttings and root sprouts also work but are more challenging. These trees are best planted in a small group in a wild or semi-wild corner of the garden. They are excellent canopy trees in a woodland because they leaf out relatively late, have an open structure and remain relatively low. Leaders can be pruned to encourage branching and keep the crowns in check. Avoid poorly drained sites on the coast, where dieback and diseases occur. British Columbia First Nations used bitter cherry bark widely for decorating woven baskets. The bark was peeled off the trunk and used in its natural colour or dyed black by soaking it in a swamp, manure or a can of rusty nails. After being softened by pounding or pulling across the edge of a board or branch, narrow strips were woven among grasses and other basketry material into beautiful patterns. The smooth, rot-resistant bark was also used to wrap tool handles and on other implements. Bitter cherry is a good fuel wood and is used by native artists for carving. I have made excellent walking sticks from re-growth on a fallen but not dead tree. Every year, a large grove of cherries behind our house hosts numerous birds as the fruit ripens. We enjoy the misty clusters of white flowers in spring but rarely see the red cherries. Yet the many seedlings of the following spring are evidence of the annual crop and the key role of this attractive native to our avian wildlife. The following plant is hardy to the zone number indicated: Prunus emarginata (bitter cherry) – zone 4 An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.