Quick facts

Common names: wild cherry, sweet cherry, gean

Scientific name: Prunus avium

Family: Rosaceae

Origin: native

Mature trees can grow to 30m and live for up to 60 years. The shiny bark is a deep reddish-brown with prominent cream-coloured horizontal lines called lenticels. The second part of its botanical name – avium – refers to birds which play a role in the tree’s propagation by eating the cherries and dispersing the seed. In Scotland, cherry is sometimes referred to as ‘gean’.

Look out for: the leaf stems (petioles) which have two red glands at the top.

Identified in winter by: winter twigs which have oval-shaped buds in clusters.

What does wild cherry look like? 

Wild cherry young fruits in spring

Credit: Klein & Hubert / naturepl.com

Leaves

Oval, green and toothed with pointed tips, measuring 6–15cm with two red glands on the stalk at the leaf base. They fade to orange and deep crimson in autumn.

Wild cherry blossom close-up

Credit: Paul Coppi / WTML

Flowers

Cherry trees are hermaphrodite, meaning the male and female reproductive parts are found in the same flower. Flowers, measuring 8–15mm across appear in April and are white and cup-shaped, with five petals. They hang in clusters of two to six.

Wild cherry fruit ripe on the tree

Credit: REDA & CO Srl / Alamy Stock Photo

Fruits

After pollination by insects, the flowers develop into globular, hairless, deep-red cherries.

Not to be confused with:

Sour cherry (Prunus cerasus) – wild cherry fruits are on longer stalks; bird cherry (Prunus padus); and cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera).

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Wild cherry leaves silhouette against sunset

Credit: Richard Becker / WTML

Where to find wild cherry

Wild cherry is native throughout the UK and Europe, except the far north. It grows best in full sunlight and fertile soil.

Wild cherry flowers against blue sky

Credit: Richard Becker / WTML

Value to wildlife

The spring flowers provide an early source of nectar and pollen for bees; while the cherries are eaten by birds, including the blackbird and song thrush; as well as mammals, such as the badger, wood mouse, yellow-necked mouse and dormouse. The foliage is the main food plant for caterpillars of many species of moth, including the cherry fruit and cherry bark moths, the orchard ermine, brimstone and short-cloaked moth.

Wild cherry fruit on tree

Credit: Brian Legg / WTML

Mythology and symbolism

In Highland folklore, wild cherry had mysterious qualities, and to encounter one was considered auspicious and fateful.

Did you know?

Although the seeds are distributed by mammals and birds, cherry trees can also propagate themselves by root suckers.

Uses of wild cherry

Wild cherry has many cultivars and is a popular ornamental tree in gardens. Traditionally, cherries were planted for their fruit and also their wood which was used for making cask hoops and vine poles. The sticky resin was thought to promote a good complexion and eyesight, and help to cure coughs.

These days, cherry wood is used to make decorative veneers and furniture. The wood is hard, strong and honey-coloured, and can be polished to a good, shiny brown. The wood burns well and produces a sweetly scented smoke, similar to the scent of its flowers.

Threats and conservation

Wild cherry is susceptible to bacterial cankers which can disfigure and occasionally kill infected trees. Pruning at the wrong time of year can put trees at risk from silver leaf disease, which can also eventually kill the tree. Dieback can be caused by damage from the cherry black fly, Myzus cerasi.