Wild cherry trees can grow in a wide variety of conditions and are often first or second colonizers in the successional growth of a recently cut forest or field allowed to go wild. They grow fast and live long. You can hope for fallen limbs after a windstorm. You can also use smaller branches or look for a stand thick enough to warrant thinning.
A large branch will easily provide enough medicine for you and your family for a long time to come.
I brought some wild cherry tree seedlings home from a landscaping project where we pulled them from garden beds. I tucked them next to the house and forgot about them. Now, 10 years later, I have enjoyed the shade, insect life and bird activity (easily viewed from my bedroom) immensely.
Spending time in a sick bed, I became enamored even more with these lovely companions and started to remember there was power in the bark. I had just used the last of an herbal glycerite of cherry bark I had procured and relied on heavily during any hint of a sore throat. But until 2020, I had never personally harvested fresh cherry bark.
Since they were right next to the foundation, though, I needed to cut them back anyway.
Identifying Wild Cherry
First I wanted to make sure I had the right cherries. Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is also a wild cherry-like and tree-like shrub that many use interchangeably. But its form is easily distinguished from the wild tree Prunus serotina with some basic information.
Wild cherry trees are found in many climates across the U.S., and they are especially abundant in my local temperate Appalachian forests.
To learn about the multiple uses of cherry bark, I turned first to three well-respected modern herbalists, Paul Bergner, Phyllis Light, and Matthew Wood, who share their love and uses for wild cherry in this video.
Preparing Wild Cherry
Phyllis Light (in the video linked above) notes that the tree looks like it has scarring or cuts that have scabbed over, which can be mystically compared to the healing of wounds. Many species in the rose family, of which cherry is a member, bring heart-toning qualities.
You’ll need to shave the bark of a larger branch or trunk. Whether you get only inner or both inner and outer bark depends on the branch that you’re using. I cut a limb from my tree that was about 4 to 5 inches in diameter. It was the second largest trunk of two main ones branching from about a foot off the ground.
There were also several smaller limbs growing from it.
I shaved the large trunk but not the smaller branches less than 2 inches in diameter. For the small stuff, I used pruners to chop into pieces short enough to stuff into a canning jar. For the older branches’ bark, I used a draw knife to shave a thin slice of the outer bark, which is green on the underside. This I discarded.
Underneath was the inner bark, and the cherry bark aroma filled my senses for hours as I peeled. You’ll know that the white bark is stripped when you start to see wood pulp grain on the limb.
Making Cherry Bark Syrup
Cherry bark’s popularity in cough syrup is so old that modern cough syrup is still often labeled as being cherry flavored. This is surprisingly not for the fruits but for the traditional use of the bark (even though they fail to include its namesake in either fruit or bark anymore).
From jim I learned that a cool preparation is a heavenly flavor. My entire family agreed it smells like an almond extract. And we were very happy we had done this simple preparation when we all came down with sore throats in 2020!
Pack a jar with fresh bark, cover with cold water, and let it sit at ambient temperature for 24 to 48 hours—until it smells and tastes amazing. If it seems weak after two days on the counter, put it in the fridge to steep without danger of spoilage.
Don’t wait more than a week. If it’s still weak tasting, strain and add fresh bark to re-steep in the refrigerator (not optional this time) and doubles your extraction.
Once it tastes good and strong, this precious liquid can be strained and combined with any sugar as a basic syrup recipe. A dose can be 1 teaspoon to as little as 1 milliliter, depending on how dilute you have made your syrup. Since excessive sugar is needed to preserve a syrup to shelf stability, consider using a little alcohol instead. Or you can refrigerate or even freeze a syrup to extend its shelf life, rather than making it too sugary.
Further Notes About Wil Cherry
For concerns about the use of cherry bark, the well-known phytochemist Lisa Ganora has shared insights repeated by jim mcdonald in the article linked above. To remain safe, always use extremely fresh or extremely dry bark for your ingestion.
The partially wilted state is the least desirable in the chemical pathways we want to avoid.
I write about cherry bark this spring because, while most tree bark should be harvested in winter or early spring before a tree has leafed out, cherry’s flavor is better and the product is easier to digest when it’s harvested after flowering.
So, as always, find a qualified botanist to make sure you found the right cherry tree, give thanks for the wonders of plant growth and gift, and enjoy finding almond-flavored help for your body in your backyard!