Written by Reba Kruse BSN/RN
Plant Family: Rosaceae
Genus and species: Prunus serotina
Common Names: Virginian Prune, Black Cherry, Rum Cherry, Wild Black Cherry
Parts Used: Inner Bark, leaves, fruit
Tissue State: Laxity, Damp, Excitation
Taste: Astringent, Sweet, Bitter, Aromatic
Botanical Description: Tree, 40-90 ft tall; Bark- rough, dark, grayish on the lower trunk, upper trunk near branching bark smoothes out with whitish lenticels (stripes/striations), scratching surface of twig/branch releases cherry-almond odor; Leaves – Oval/lance-shaped, blunt-toothed, smooth top leaf, pale/whitish bottom, prominent mid-rib under leaf with white-brown hairs on the rib; Flowers – white, drooping, racemes, blooms April through June/July; Fruit- very dark, nearly black. Grows in dry woods, widespread in eastern North America, ranges from Nova Scotia to North Dakota, southward to Florida, westward to Arizona and down as far as Guatemala (USDA, 2003 and Brown, 2011).
Properties: Antitussive, Sedative, Astringent, Cooling, Nervine
Wild cherry has a pleasant taste and action. I experience a distinct and dispersive cooling and relaxing sensation that is both systemic and centered in the chest. The nervine action was very unexpected. Most of my exposure to wild cherry has been in the context of its antitussive action. Experiencing relaxation was a nice surprise and cemented my belief that plants are best understood from personal exposure. I also experienced a gentle gut stimulating action. I expect from the bitter flavor. I’d be interested to do a blind tasting to see if I have the same impact.
At the time of this writing my daughter was experiencing a persistent, non-productive cough that had become quite annoying to her. I gave her 20 drops of wild cherry tincture diluted in 4 ounces of water as an experiment. Her cough was slightly reduced but not eliminated. However, more importantly her cough became productive and she was able to expectorate. What previously sounded like a very tight, dry cough changed into a deeper, moist, productive cough.
Phyllis Light explains that the resin exuded by the bark is the “supreme medicinal part of the tree (Light & Wood, 2018). Matt Wood describes a use an old Confederate malaria remedy of white oak bark, wild cherry, and dogwood (Light & Wood, 2018). Autumn was indicated as the preferred time of harvest containing the highest amount of hydrocyanic acid (Felter & Lloyd, 1898). Note: Hydrocyanic acid is produced by enzyme activity on the cyanogenic glycosides, prunasin and amygdalin, found in wild cherry when the plant’s tissue is damaged (Robakowski et al., 2016).
Wild cherry was chiefly used during the convalescent period after fever and inflammatory illnesses. The bark was prized for its simultaneous action that was stimulating to the GI tract and sedating to the nervous and circulatory systems (Felter & Lloyd, 1898). Wild cherry’s affinity for reducing irritation of mucous membranes encouraged its use in all manner of pulmonary, urinary, and gastrointestinal inflammatory conditions (Felter & Lloyd, 1898).
Key Uses: Persistent cough; nerve tonic; fever; rapid, weak pulse; heart palpitations; loss of appetite.
Less commonly ascribed uses to wild cherry are as a nerve tonic and as a Southern folk remedy use in heart tonics, along with sumac, surpassing the use of Hawthorn due to wild cherry’s greater abundance in the Southern states (Light & Wood, 2018). Phyllis Light adds a little wild cherry to formulas as a catalyst for remedies intended for the heart, chest, and head “to drive it to where I want it to go” (Light & Wood, 2018). Matt Wood says wild cherry is used as a gut remedy in the presence of immune system excess related to food allergies (Light & Wood, 2018).
David Hoffman offers the clearest distinction of wild cherry’s indication by highlighting its specificity for “irritating coughs” such as found in bronchitis and whooping cough (Hoffman, 1983). The type of cough that is persistent leading to exhaustion. Hoffman rightly points out the underlying infection still needs to be addressed in support of a holistic approach to cough suppression.
One clinical study was found related to Prunus serotine. A rather complex methanol extract was found to inhibit cellular growth and promote apoptosis of in vitro colorectal cancer cells (Yamaguchi et al., 2006). The study cites multiple references to the “traditional uses” of wild cherry. However, its important to point out a weakness of the methods used to produce the wild cherry extract involving a highly elaborate, lab dependent extraction method that would not have been available to traditional peoples and inherently alters the traditional preparation methods.
Constituents (Hoffman, 2003)
Cyanogenic glycoside (prunasin and amygdalin)
Dosage and Method of Delivery: (Easley & Horne, 2016)
*Fresh bark superior to dried preparation
Strong Cold Infusion: 1-5 oz three to five times per day
Tincture: Fresh bark 1:3 in 40% ETOH, 10-40 drops one to four times per day
Glycerite: 1:8 in 60% glycerine, 1-2 tsp three to five times per day
Syrup: Strong cold infusion with 50% honey
Cautions and Contraindications: (AHPA, 2013)
None known. Safety in pregnancy or nursing has not been established nor any information in scientific or traditional literature identified.
American Herbal Products Association. (2013). Botanical Safety Handbook (2nd ed.). Boca
Raton, FL: CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group.
Bone, K., & Mills, S. (2013). Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy. Great Britain: Churchill
Brown, Kristine. (2011). Cherry (Wild) Cherry. Herbal Roots Zine [HerbMentor Edition].
Available from https://herbmentor.learningherbs.com/articles/kid-stuff/hrz-wild-
Easley, T. & Horne, S. (2016). The Modern Herbal Dispensatory: A Medicine-Making Guide.
Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Felter, H.W. (1922). The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Retrieved
Felter, H.W., & Lloyd, J.U. (1898). King’s American Dispensatory. Retrieved from
Hoffman, David. (1983). Holistic herbal: A safe and practical guide to making and using herbal
remedies. Hammersmith, Longdon: Thorsons.
Hoffman, David. (2003). Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine.
Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Light, P., & Wood, M. (2018, February 27). The Southern Herbal Tradition, Part 3 [Video File].
Available from https://herbmentor.learningherbs.com/essentials/herb-tv/the-southern-
Lloyd, J. U. (1911). History of the Vegetable Drugs of the Pharmacopeia of the United States
(Bulletin no 18, Pharmacy series, no 4). Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/historyofvegetab00lloy/page/89
Robakowski, P., Bielinis, E., Stachowiak, J., Mejza, I., & Bułaj, B. (2016). Seasonal changes affect
root prunasin concentration in prunus serotina and override species interactions
between P. serotina and Quercus petraea. Journal of chemical ecology, 42(3), 202–214. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10886-016-0678-y
United States Department of Agriculture. (2003). Plant Guide: Black cherry Prunus serotine
Ehrh [PDF File]. Retrieved from https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_prse2.pdf
Yamaguchi, K., Liggett, J. L., Kim, N. C., & Baek, S. J. (2006). Anti-proliferative effect of
horehound leaf and wild cherry bark extracts on human colorectal cancer cells.
Oncology reports, 15(1), 275–281. Retrieved from