Black Cherry: Celebrating an Aging Park Species

Each spring, when the Cherry Blossom Festival takes place in Washington, D.C., I think of other cherry trees, the Wild Black Cherry trees in Eliza Howell Park.

Black Cherries are quite different from the smaller ornamental trees, mostly of Japanese origin, now blooming in Washington. They are the largest of native Cherry species and many of the ones in the park have grown both up and out.

There are approximately 20 of these cherries found within the road loop in the park and they are now beginning to leaf out. When they blossom in May, I often seek out low-hanging branches to get a good look at the flowers.

The fruit is edible (when the seeds have been removed), though not everyone finds them tasty. The birds, though, are big fans of these berries! In fact, I first started paying careful attention to these trees when I saw all the different species (including many Cedar Waxwings) foraging in them one August years ago.

The fruit ripens from red to black — if the birds don’t eat them all before they turn.

The few Black Cherries that I have seen in the wooded areas of the park tend to have a single main trunk and straight vertical growth. In the open areas where most are found, they often have multiple trunks, spreading to take advantage of the available space.

While Black Cherry wood has long been used in making furniture and cabinets, their greatest value, in my mind, is how they support a large number of animal species. Examples include Baltimore Orioles nesting among the hanging leaves and the larvae of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, a common butterfly of Eliza Howell, feeding on these leaves.

In the last couple years, it has become evident that these trees are getting old. Most are still quite healthy, but some are not. Only a small part of the tree in this photo is leafing out this spring.

There is so much to celebrate about the Black Cherry trees of Eliza Howell Park. And, in midst of celebration, it is time to think about and plan for the next generation.

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