Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata) is a native shrub or small tree found from British Columbia to Baja and east into the Rocky Mountain States. The two varieties of P emarginata are distinguished, in part, by their growth form: one more tree-like and found coastally while the other variety is shrubby and grows more inland. Bitter cherry prefers moist slopes, stream beds, open woods with plentiful soil nutrients and recently disturbed areas below about 9,200 feet. It is intolerant of shade. These specimens were flowering in May along Stony Brook Trail in Six Rivers National Recreation Area (Del Norte County CA).
A fast growing, but not long-lived plant, bitter cherry has smooth, grey to reddish brown bark with evident lenticels. The plant sends out underground stems which often form extensive thickets.
The alternate bitter cherry leaves are clustered on older branches. The upper surface of the leaf is dark green and hairless while the lower surface may have hairs. The leaf blades are narrow or oval with the widest portion above the middle. Round-tipped or pointed, the petioled leaves have fine-toothed margins. Two or three warty glands are found on the basal margin of the leaf blade or on the petiole near the base of the blade.
Bitter cherry inflorescences are composed of 5 to 12 white flowers in loose corymbose (flat-topped) clusters. Often several clusters are clumped together. The almond-scented flowers have five petals, five sepals, 20 to 30 stamens and a single style with a superior ovary.
Native Americans utilized bitter cherry bark, which peels off in strips resembling birchbark, in basketry and for wrapping the joints of implements such as arrows and spears. Concoctions made from bitter cherry plants were used as a laxative and to treat heart problems.
P emarginata is also colloquially known as Oregon cherry. The species name derives from Latin and means “notched at margins”.
Bitter cherry fruits will be the topic of my next post.