I learned about pin cherries mostly by accident, but now that I know them they’re remarkably easy to identify. I’d often see black cherry bark on walks in the woods, and I’d always hoped to someday find fruit. The trees are so tall, and I’ve yet to harvest. When a group of young wild cherry trees began growing on a patch of land we’d recently cleared, I was so excited. I’d finally get to harvest my first black cherries, likely many years in the future.
It wasn’t until they flowered and fruited that I realized they weren’t black cherries at all, but wild pin cherries!
Pin cherries form small red fruits that ripen between in mid-July and mid-August. The fruit are very similar to cultivated pie cherries (sour cherries) except that they’re much smaller. Much like any other type of cherry, the fruits often come in groups of two.
Pin cherries grow very quickly, and they can go from seedling to bearing age in just a few years. When we cleared this patch of land three years ago the soil was bare, no cherries in sight. Three years later the biggest pin cherry is nearly 10 feet tall, and many others are 5-6 feet tall. Generally, they don’t fruit until they’re 12 to 30 feet tall and the trunk is 2 to 6 inches in diameter so ours are a bit ahead of schedule.
The trees are a pioneer species, often growing in recently cleared land, or just about anywhere they can gain a foothold. They’re commonly found in abandoned gravel pits and abandoned fields. They prefer dry, sandy or gravelly soil, which happens to perfectly describe where we found them.
Though pin cherries colonize and grow quickly, they’re a short-lived tree. Once other trees begin to take root, pin cherries will die out as the canopy fills in. Pin cherry trees tend to grow in colonies, and ours are in a colony of nearly a dozen individual trees growing right up against a pair of mature sugar maples.
The bark on cherry trees is very distinctive, and that’s how I knew they were a cherry species from a very young age. It has a reddish brown hue, and small horizontal white or tan lines. Other than the lenticels, the bark is very smooth and thin. As the trees age, it may begin to peel in papery sheets a bit like birch bark.
The leaves grow alternately on a branch and tend to be between 1.5 and 3 inches long. They’re narrow, oblong and pointed with tiny teeth at their edges. Overall they look much like many other stone fruit species.
As the fruit begins to ripen, they’ll turn a deep purple on one side before they fully ripen to a bright red, glossy color. I’ve read that the fruit are occasionally orange or yellow colored on individual trees, but that’s a relatively rare mutation.
Though the fruit are small, the trees can bear heavily. The fact that the trees often grow in colonies also helps bring in a bigger foraged harvest. Even with heavy yields, it’s often hard to pick a substantial amount. Since the trees can be quite tall at bearing age, the fruit are frequently out of reach.
Even when they are within reach, harvesting is time-consuming. Rather than growing in clusters like chokecherries, pin cherries are on individual stems. The tree is hoping to entice birds to pluck the fruit, and the growth habit seems ill-suited for human harvest.
As the name suggests, the fruit of a pin cherry tree is very small. The very small fruit has very little actual cherry meat, since the seed inside is so large. There’s barely a millimeter of flesh around a large white seed.
It’s impossible to pit a pin cherry, as anything that could puncture through the outside and drive the large pit out would also pulverize the thin coating of flesh. The flesh can be removed by simmering in a tiny amount of water, or by a food mill. The author of The Forager’s Harvest says that they make “one of the best jams ever tasted.” He suggests using a food strainer with the tension spring removed to separate the pulp from the seeds for jam making. Our young trees didn’t produce a jams worth this year, and all the cherries were eaten out of hand.
How do pin cherries taste? I’ve read that they can vary greatly in taste and that some wild trees have cherries that are bitter and sulfurous. Others taste much like cultivated sour cherries, only a bit tarter.
The pin cherries on our tree were sweet, mildly astringent and pleasant with just enough tart to make things interesting. It’s hard to get much flavor off of them fresh since there’s so little cherry flesh. Just the tiniest hint of sweet, with a mild cherry taste and a bit of wild bitterness.
My 18-month-old foraging buddy saw mama harvesting and he had to get in on the action. He dropped his bottle and spent about half an hour carefully hunting berries and popping them into his mouth with delight. There you have it, they’re bottle dropping good to a toddler.
The seeds are so small that they’re no bigger than the seed inside an old school seeded grape, which means they’re no big deal if a child eats a few here or there. They come out the other end in much the same shape they went in.
I’m always impressed at how much my little ones remember when we’re out foraging. This little guy still runs over to the pineapple weed patch with glee, and if I say black raspberries he’ll be across the yard to the edge of the woods in a second. I always watch him as he’s harvesting, and his tiny hands know just how to avoid the thorns. Some of the black raspberries grow right up among mildly toxic invasive bush honeysuckle plants, yet he’s never picked them. The berries look a lot like pin cherries, but I’ve never shown them to him so he doesn’t eat them.
I wonder if that’s because my kids have grown up following mama around foraging? As soon as my daughter had words she’d ask time and time again, “Is this an eating flower mama?” Pointing to jewelweed, red clover or some other common wild blossom. She asked about the bush honeysuckle berries once, and I explained that they weren’t good to eat and the plants grew them just for the birds. Even now, years later she still will try to get the bird’s attention in the yard and call them over to eat their bird berries when the bushes are overflowing with fruit.
We’re a hunter-gatherer species, and foraging is in our blood. All it takes is a little time to rekindle that fire, and kids can memorize wild edible plants after one or two mentions once foraging becomes part of their daily lives.
Pin cherries are now part of my 1.5-year-old and 3-year old’s vocabulary, and they’ll be waiting for them with excitement next year.