The pinkish white blossom of the native sweet cherry – a relative of the plum – is a herald of spring in the towns and countryside of its native Europe and an inspiration to artists everywhere. The shiny, emerald leaves, following soon after, are early to sprout, too. For such a common tree, there is much confusion between related species like the bird cherry (Prunus padus), which produces white candelabra of blossom but no edible fruit, and various cultivars. But there is no mistaking the bright red or dark purple fruit beloved of humans, birds and mammals.
Even in the depths of winter the cherry stands out with its dark, purply brown, shiny bark pockmarked with the horizontal scabby lenticels through which it exchanges gases with the atmosphere. Its main shoot grows relentlessly upright and it is quick growing, occasionally reaching the impressive height of 100 feet (31 metres) or more.
Bronze Age (roughly 1500 to 800 BCE in Britain) settlement sites frequently contain cherry pips, so it has been a British favourite for millennia. Cultivation and selection of the self-fertile tree has been traced at least as far back as the early 1st millennium BCE in Asia Minor, and many varieties are now grown commercially across the temperate world. Some of these are hybrids between the sweet cherry and the sour cherry (Prunus cerasus); the sharper the fruit, the more likely it is to be used for cooking rather than eating raw. The wild tree, its hermaphroditic flowers pollinated by bees, is propagated naturally by birds and mammals eating the fruit and distributing the pips elsewhere.
Cherries coppice readily and the dense, dark brown wood is valued for its hardness and colour, for turning on a lathe, for cabinet-making and in the backs of musical instruments. Chips of the wood are popularly smoked to flavour and preserve meat. A sap exuded from wounds in the bark makes a sweet natural chewing gum.
Cherries are widely planted as street trees and ornamentally in gardens for their early leaves and blossom displays. Oriental cherries (Prunus pseudocerasus), with a rather tart fruit, are famed and much celebrated across China and Japan in painting and poetry for their profuse blossom.