The black cherry tree is a notably straight growing tree that can reach up to 100 feet. It has a wide growing range from Eastern Canada to Florida and as far west as Texas. The black cherry is highly valued for use as hardwood, especially in furniture making. For Native Americans, it was particularly useful in treating coughs and colds.
Wild cherry trees can be identified by their emerald green leaves which have finely serrated edges. When wilted, the leaves are poisonous. The rough bark is reddish-brown and has overlapping upturned pores that cover new growth. A quick way to identify a wild cherry tree is to look for a fungus called a black knot that creates a burl on the tree. The roots, bark, leaves, and twigs can be highly toxic to wildlife due to the presence of cyanogenic compounds. The blossoms are beautiful and appear in dense clusters at the end of the slender branches usually in the late spring or early summer. After blooming, each flower is replaced by a small berry that turns from green to red and eventually to purple-black when ripe. The cherries are usually harvested in the fall.
The tree’s fruits have a slightly sweet and acidic taste and can be eaten raw. Native Americans consume them as a fresh fruit. The Iroquois use them in bread or cake and the Ojibwa tribe (Moerman) dry the cherries and use them in a soup. Black cherries are also used for rum earning the name “rum cherry” and for flavoring in soft drinks and jams and jellies. Dried black cherries are an essential ingredient in pemmican, a high energy food made of fat and protein.
Medicinally the black cherry tree is very important to Native Americans. A tea or infusion is made from the dried inner bark to treat a variety of symptoms including colds, fever, and labor pains. It is also used as a general pain reliever. The roots were used to treat intestinal worms, cold sores, burns and other skin eruptions. The fruit is used to make cough syrup. As a matter of fact, a form of wild cherry bark can be found today in some cough syrups, cough drops, and lozenges. Historically, the Mohegan tribe allowed the ripe wild black cherry to ferment naturally in a jar for about a year and then drank the juice to cure dysentery. The Meskwaki tribe made a tea out of the bark of the roots of the wild cherry tree and used it as a sedative.
About The Institute for American Indian Studies
The Institute for American Indian Studies preserves and educates through discovery and creativity the diverse traditions, vitality, and knowledge of Native American cultures. Through archaeology, the IAIS is able to build new understandings of the world and history of Native Americans, the focus is on stewardship and preservation. This is achieved through workshops, special events, and education for students of all ages.
Located on 15 woodland acres the IAIS has an outdoor Three Sisters and Healing Plants Gardens as well as a replicated 16th c. Algonkian Village. Inside the museum, authentic artifacts are displayed in permanent, semi-permanent and temporary exhibits from prehistory to the present that allows visitors a walk through time. The Institute for American Indian Studies is located on 38 Curtis Road in Washington Connecticut and can be reached online or by calling 860-868-0518.