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The life and lore of the cherry tree

PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 March 2017

Prunus Avium  Photo: Jean-Pol Grandmont

Prunus Avium Photo: Jean-Pol Grandmont

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Martyn Baguley takes a closer look at the cherry tree...

When the Wildwood was at its peak, or ‘climax’, the dark and inhospitable forest, populated by wild animals, would have seemed frightening to our ancestors. But once a year, in the spring, they would have been cheered when the native cherry trees, scattered through the forest, burst into blossom.

The word ‘cherry’ derives from the French cerise and Spanish cereza which evolved from the Greek place name Cerasus, today the city of Giresun in northern Turkey, from where cherries were first exported to Europe.

Our native cherry trees are thought to have originated in Central Asia from where they slowly spread westwards. There is archaeological evidence that cherries have been eaten by our ancestors since prehistoric times, cherry stones having been found in Bronze Age settlements which date back to 2000BC. At least two species of cherry are recognized as being native in Britain, the bird cherry and the wild cherry. And this is where the fun starts – you’ll have to concentrate.

The generic name for the species is Prunus, which is the Latin word for a plum tree. Logically the bird cherry should have the botanical name Prunus avium, avis being the Latin word for a bird. But the botanical name for the bird cherry, which has bitter fruit, is Prunus padus, padus being the Greek word for a wild cherry tree, and the name for our native wild cherry is Prunus avium, avium literally meaning in Latin ‘of the birds’. Therein lies the clue. The native wild cherry, commonly called a gean from guigne, the French word for the tree, is the ancestor of cultivated cherries. Birds love the sweet fruits; they will gobble them up even before they are fully ripe. So that is why the sweet-fruited wild cherry is called Prunus avium and the bitter-fruited bird cherry is called Prunus padus.

If you find a wild cherry tree growing in a wood, look carefully at the leaves. If they are in shade they grow large to intercept as much light as possible. If they are exposed to sunlight they tend to be thicker to concentrate the light which stimulates photosynthesis.

The pretty spring cherry tree flowers may lift the spirits but they belie less attractive characteristics of the trees. The greyish-brown bark of Prunus padus emits an acrid smell, sufficiently unpleasant to persuade our ancestors to believe that by putting it at the door of a house it would ward off the plague. Despite this, in the past cherry tree bark was used to make fabric dyes, ranging in colour from cream to tan, and a reddish-purple coloured dye was obtained from cherry tree roots. The bark, leaves and seeds of cherry trees contain chemicals called cyanogenic glycosides. If fresh leaves are chewed the chemicals can release hydrogen cyanide, a poison which can be lethal for children and animals. Even small doses can cause headaches, tightness in the throat and chest and muscle weakness. Despite this potentially fatal characteristic Native Americans use cherry leaves to make teas for the treatment of colds and coughs.

Cherry trees have played a part in medical lore for centuries. The resin which leaks from the bark was used by children as chewing gum. It was used as a treatment for coughs and dissolved in wine to treat gall and kidney stones. The perceived anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial characteristics of sour cherries have been part of the remedy stock-in-trade of herbalists for centuries. Henry VIII was said to believe that the fruit relieved inflammation of the joints caused by gout. More recently several studies have discovered that tart cherries contain the natural sleep hormone melatonin, claimed to be useful as a remedy for insomnia and jet lag. Researchers now claim that the ruby-red fruit also contains antioxidants which may significantly reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even cancer.

For some obscure reason cherry tree folklore is associated with the cuckoo. The bird is said to have to eat three good meals of cherries before it can stop cuckooing, and in Buckinghamshire there is a traditional children’s rhyme which says:

‘Cuckoo, cherry tree,

Good bird tell me,

How many years before I die?’

The answer was said to be the next number of cuckoo calls that the listener heard. The last time I heard a cuckoo it only called six times. There must have been a lot of very worried children in Buckinghamshire.

‘Wildwood Legacy – what our native trees did for us’, £10, p&p £1.71 is available from 10th March, email sales@pentlandfriends.co.uk, profits to Friends of the Pentlands for its charitable works.

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