The Mysterious Case of the Missing Black Cherries, Week Ending 8/25/2019

The miserably hot and humid weather has finally broken in the mid-Atlantic… at least temporarily. The air feels almost crisp and carries hints of autumn. What gorgeous weather for foraging! This time, I set my sights on harvesting black cherries.

Black cherries (Prunus serotina) grow prolifically locally, almost meriting the label “weed” here in central Maryland. Mites infect the leaves creating finger-like galls that protrude from most of the surfaces.

Galls on black cherry leaves
Galls on black cherry leaves

I somehow neglected to photograph its racemes of flowers this spring. However the MD Biodiversity Project listing for black cherries has some very nice pictures. The galls and the distinctive shape of flower clusters help confirm when you have found a black cherry tree. Imagine my delight when I found one growing in my very own yard!

Imagine how amazing, when I discovered black cherry recipes in Forage, Harvest, Feast! (Yes, I know you’re sick of me talking about this book. What can I say? I’m a fan!) Sam Thayer, in Nature’s Garden, is effusive about how worthy of foraging black cherries are, for their flavor, comparative size, and relative abundance on the tree. Apparently black cherry flavor bears no resemblance at all to cultivated cherries, but are still delicious in their own right. I was eager to finally sample them for myself

I’d last checked on the black cherry tree a little over a month ago, and they still needed plenty of time to ripen.

Black cherries, mid-July - still have a while until they will be ripe
Black cherries, mid-July – still have a while until they will be ripe

The cherries turn dark-purple black, and most sources suggest they ripen late August to mid-September. Well, elderberries also were “supposed” to ripen in a similar time frame, but mine were ready earlier (and are in fact done fruiting altogether). So I figured now would be a good time to check on the black cherries.

Except there aren’t any.

At all.

Not even the shriveled dried fruit I might’ve expected if I’d just missed the harvest. There should still something clinging to stems amid the branches. Every foraging book I checked shows photos of long clusters of black cherries and talks about how abundant they are. So easy to just strip the fruit off the long main stem and into your container. Where on earth did I go wrong?

Thayer does say, “In years of poor fruiting, the birds will pick off the cherries as they ripen, sometimes sooner, leaving nothing for the human collector. More often, however, these trees fruit copiously.” (p. 296)

I guess this must’ve been a ‘year of poor fruiting’ then. We had a very late cold snap at the end of April – date of last frost in our area averages April 15, and it just reached the freezing mark April 28 this year. Maybe that killed many of the flowers, so the fruit didn’t get a chance to set? Although given how many other bird-friendly-foods we have around here (such as my elderberries), I am surprised (and dismayed) to think they got all of the cherries. Even if “all” wasn’t really that many in the first place.

The bare branches of the local black cherry tree
The bare branches of the local black cherry tree

This is one of those times when folks say, “If we had to survive off what we could forage, we would’ve gone hungry today.”

Well, if we had to survive off what we could forage, I wouldn’t have waited over a month to check on the ripening of the fruit. I’d be monitoring the ripening progress daily, and I might have looked for a way to protect the branches from the birds (assuming that is indeed what happened) so ensure some harvest was still available for us. I also could have picked the cherries somewhat early to see if they might ripen inside, as some fruits do. Additionally, I would have known about the habits of the black cherry long before now, and maybe I could have anticipated a poor harvest and focused my foraging attention elsewhere.

I’m not giving up though. Next year, black cherry. Next year…


I consulted the following books in my desperate attempt to find my missing black cherries. Note: I am not an affiliate marketer and I do not get commissions if you buy these books from I highly recommend looking for them at your public library.

Samuel Thayer, Nature’s Garden.

Marie Viljoen, Forage, Harvest, Feast.

Chris Bennett, Southeast Foraging.

Leda Merideth, Northeast Foraging

If you would like to support my work, you can hire me to perform a wild edibles assessment for property in the northern WV, central MD, northern VA, or southern PA area; hire me to speak or write about foraging, permaculture and sustainability; or consider making a donation.


  1. […] (OK, some of the wild edibles I’ve sample this summer could still be considered failures because I couldn’t capitalize on them. The best example being mayapples! I spied two more ripe mayapples in the woods last week, but was unwilling to tangle with the nettles for such a meager amount of food. Black nightshade berries were also disappointing, primarily due to lack of interest from my family. Plus there only seem to be a handful ripe at any given time. I’m thinking about dehydrating them as I harvest them, to see how that goes. And don’t even get me started about my missing black cherries!) […]

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