Thursday, May 10, 2012

Black Cherry

My love for trees and appreciation of their intricate details was planted in me by Dr. Agnes Lisle. At age 19, I could not have realized that what she taught us would stick; this long, this deep. About 16 young men at Grand Rapids Junior College (now GRCC) took Dr. Lisle's Biology 103 as sophomores: DENDROLOGY. Dendro - tree, ology - the study of.

The course was intense. She was demanding. Expectations were high. It stuck. Because here I am 45 years later sharing Dendrology with you, around the U.S., around the world. If she could see me now! Maybe she'd change my B+ to an A-. But I'd have to retake the Final Lab Exam: 100 Deciduous trees, 25 Conifers; including common names and scientific names. Often only a dead twig to examine for identification. It was tough!

Our professor must be in her low 100s now, if she's alive, aging gracefully like a tall White Pine. If not, I still send this message: "Dr. Lisle: Thank you for your high expectations."

This bookmark is for you...

Last weekend, high in a Black Cherry tree, my wife and I were watching a Yellow-throated Vireo, near McCarthy Lake. He blended nicely with the emerging leaves. Through the binoculars, I saw tens of thousands of tight, white buds.

This elongated arrangement of flowers is called a raceme, or spike. It's 4-5 inches long. Here is a nice clump of these drooping clusters.

Many flowers in various stages of development.

This next shot shows the leaves, not yet full-size. Notice their alternate arrangement on the twigs; not opposite, like you saw in "The Understory of Dogwoods" piece in April. The margin (the outer edge of the leaf), is finely serrate, with those fine teeth incurved. (Click on photo to enlarge)

If you look closely at the petiole (the stem of the leaf) you will see two small dots. These are special glands, unique to the Black Cherry leaf.

A bit closer now, count the current and future flowers... how many? ...

... times how many spikes on a large tree? That's a huge number of pollination visits by insects.

The Black Cherry is the largest and most common of the wild fruit trees. This medium-sized tree grows 40' - 60' high, and is 8" - 36" in diameter. They are seldom found in pure stands, but mix generally with other deciduous trees such as oaks, hickories, maples, ashes and elms. Its leaves are a food source for over 200 species of moth and butterfly caterpillars.

After being pollinated by insects, they produce a small, globular drupe (a fleshy or pulpy fruit with a hard, stony pit inside). Similar to the delicious Sweet Cherries made Nationally famous by the Traverse City Cherry Festival in NW lower Michigan.

 Remind me to show you these drupes in September. They are much, much smaller; only 1/3" to 1/2" diameter, purple-black with juicy flesh; slightly bitter, but edible.

I highly recommend the sweetness in the Traverse City cherries. The festival dates for this year are:
July 7-14, 2012.

About 70 bird species feed on the black cherries. Ruffed Grouse and Ring-necked Pheasants eat the seeds that have fallen to the ground. Cedar Waxwings, Grosbeaks, Thrushes, and others consume them in the tree. Sometimes they become intoxicated on the over-ripe, fermented drupes... the stupes!

The little cherry pits are regurgitated or dispersed in birds' droppings. A bird's digestive process actually increases the chances for germination. Black Bears and Raccoons will climb for the fruits. Other mammals that like the cherries include: Red Fox, Red, Gray, and Fox Squirrels, Cottontail Rabbits, and White-footed Mice. Eastern Chipmunks are known to store the seeds (pits) for occasional winter meals when they might wake from hibernation.

This next photo contains a nice spike (raceme).

On the surface of the leaf, is a strange, finger-like growth. This little red structure is caused by a mite. It's called a wild cherry "pouch gall". I've seen leaves holding over 20 of these, growing like stalagmites from its surface. A great way to remember how it was made.

Come in closer now. A few flowers are open, a few still closed...

... as they mature gradually from base to tip of the raceme. This encourages return trips for pollinating insects. Observe five white petals, 15-20 stamens (the male part: the filament, which is the stalk,  supports the anther, which produces the pollen). The stigma (the female part) is thick and club-shaped.

Another look at more mature flowers, showing nice anthers atop the filaments.

Now, let's back out to see the bark of the Black Cherry tree. Here are three, 14" diameter trunks, displaying thick, irregular plates.

And back in a bit closer, about three feet away. We see what Naturalists call the "burnt potato chip" look.

Father Nature can't leave you here staring at these gray tree trunks (the neighbors will think you're strange).
So here's a more attractive image to burn into your memory, as you go out to discover them yourself, and hopefully grow your own love for trees.