Prunus avium, commonly called wild cherry, sweet cherry, or
gean, is a species of cherry, a flowering plant in the rose family,
Rosaceae. It is native to Europe, Anatolia, Maghreb, and western Asia,
from the British Isles south to
Morocco and Tunisia, north to the
Trondheimsfjord region in
Norway and east to the
Caucasus and northern
Iran, with a small isolated population in the western Himalaya. The
species is widely cultivated in other regions and has become
naturalized in North America and Australia.
Prunus avium, has a diploid set of sixteen chromosomes
(2n = 16). All parts of the plant except for the ripe
fruit are slightly toxic, containing cyanogenic glycosides.
2 Description and ecology
3 Cultivation and uses
3.4 Other uses
4 Contribution to other species
5 Cultural history
7 External links
The early history of its classification is somewhat confused. In the
first edition of
Species Plantarum (1753), Linnaeus treated it as only
Prunus cerasus var. avium, citing Gaspard Bauhin's Pinax
theatri botanici (1596) as a synonym. [clarification needed]
His description, Cerasus racemosa hortensis ("cherry with racemes, of
gardens")[clarification needed] shows it was described from a
cultivated plant. Linnaeus then changed from a variety to a species
Prunus avium in the second edition of his Flora Suecica in 1755.
Sweet cherry was known historically as gean or mazzard (also
'massard'), until recently, both were largely obsolete names in modern
The name "wild cherry" is also commonly applied to other species of
Prunus growing in their native habitats, particularly to the North
Prunus avium means "bird cherry" in the Latin language, but in
English "bird cherry" refers to
More recently[when?] 'Mazzard' has been used to refer to a selected
self-fertile cultivar that comes true from seed, and which is used as
a seedling rootstock for fruiting cultivars. This term is
still used particularly for the varieties of P. avium grown in North
Devon and cultivated there, particularly in the orchards at Landkey.
Description and ecology
Red glands (extrafloral nectaries) on the petiole.
Prunus avium is a deciduous tree growing to 15–32 m
(49–105 ft) tall, with a trunk up to 1.5 m (4.9 ft)
in diameter. Young trees show strong apical dominance with a straight
trunk and symmetrical conical crown, becoming rounded to irregular on
The bark is smooth purplish-brown with prominent horizontal grey-brown
lenticels on young trees, becoming thick dark blackish-brown and
fissured on old trees.
The leaves are alternate, simple ovoid-acute, 7–14 cm
(2.8–5.5 in) long and 4–7 cm (1.6–2.8 in) broad,
glabrous matt or sub-shiny green above, variably finely downy beneath,
with a serrated margin and an acuminate tip, with a green or reddish
petiole 2–3.5 cm (0.79–1.38 in) long bearing two to five
small red glands. The tip of each serrated edge of the leaves also
bear small red glands. In autumn, the leaves turn orange, pink or
red before falling.
The flowers are produced in early spring at the same time as the new
leaves, borne in corymbs of two to six together, each flower pendent
on a 2–5 cm (0.79–1.97 in) peduncle, 2.5–3.5 cm
(0.98–1.38 in) in diameter, with five pure white petals,
yellowish stamens, and a superior ovary; they are hermaphroditic, and
pollinated by bees. The ovary contains two ovules, only one of which
becomes the seed.
The fruit is a drupe 1–2 cm (0.39–0.79 in) in diameter
(larger in some cultivated selections), bright red to dark purple when
mature in midsummer, edible, variably sweet to somewhat astringent and
bitter to eat fresh. Each fruit contains a single hard-shelled stone
8–12 mm long, 7–10 mm wide and 6–8 mm thick,
grooved along the flattest edge; the seed (kernel) inside the stone is
6–8 mm long.
Prunus avium in spring
The fruit are readily eaten by numerous kinds of birds and mammals,
which digest the fruit flesh and disperse the seeds in their
droppings. Some rodents, and a few birds (notably the hawfinch), also
crack open the stones to eat the kernel inside.
All parts of the plant except for the ripe fruit are slightly toxic,
containing cyanogenic glycosides.
See also: List of
Lepidoptera that feed on Prunus
The leaves provide food for some animals, including
as the case-bearer moth Coleophora anatipennella.
The tree exudes a gum from wounds in the bark, by which it seals the
wounds to exclude insects and fungal infections.
Cultivation and uses
Main article: Cherry
Pair of fruit growing from the same stem
Some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century botanical authors[who?]
assumed a western
Asia origin for the species based on the writings of
Pliny; however, archaeological finds of seeds from prehistoric Europe
contradict this view.
Wild cherries have been an item of human food for several thousands of
years. The stones have been found in deposits at Bronze Age
settlements throughout Europe, including in Britain. In one dated
example, wild cherry macrofossils were found in a core sample from the
detritus beneath a dwelling at an Early and Middle Bronze Age
pile-dwelling site on and in the shore of a former lake at Desenzano
del Garda or Lonato, near the southern shore of Lake Garda, Italy. The
date is estimated at Early
Bronze Age IA, carbon dated there to 2077
BCE plus or minus 10 years. The natural forest was largely cleared at
By 800 BCE, cherries were being actively cultivated in
Asia Minor, and
soon after in Greece.
As the main ancestor of the cultivated cherry, the sweet cherry is one
of the two cherry species which supply most of the world's commercial
cultivars of edible cherry (the other is the sour cherry Prunus
cerasus, mainly used for cooking; a few other species have had a very
Various cherry cultivars are now grown worldwide wherever the climate
is suitable; the number of cultivars is now very large. The
species has also escaped from cultivation and become naturalised in
some temperate regions, including southwestern Canada, Japan, New
Zealand, and the northeast and northwest of the United States.
It is often cultivated as a flowering tree. Because of the size of the
tree, it is often used in parkland, and less often as a street or
garden tree. The double-flowered form, 'Plena', is commonly found,
rather than the wild single-flowered forms.
Two interspecific hybrids, P. x schmittii (P. avium x P. canescens)
and P. x fontenesiana (P. avium x P. mahaleb) are also grown as
The hard, reddish-brown wood (cherry wood) is valued as a hardwood for
woodturning, and making cabinets and musical instruments. Cherry
wood is also used for smoking foods, particularly meats, in North
America, as it lends a distinct and pleasant flavor to the
The gum from bark wounds is aromatic and can be chewed as a substitute
for chewing gum.
Medicine can be prepared from the stalks (peduncles) of the drupes
that is astringent, antitussive, and diuretic.
A green dye can also be prepared from the plant.
Wild cherry is used extensively in
Europe for the afforestation of
agricultural land and it is also valued for wildlife and amenity
plantings. Many European countries have gene conservation and/or
breeding programmes for wild cherry.
Contribution to other species
Prunus avium is thought to be one of the parent species of Prunus
cerasus (sour cherry), by way of ancient crosses between it and Prunus
fruticosa (dwarf cherry) in the areas where the two species overlap.
All three species can breed with one another.
Prunus cerasus is now a
species in its own right, having developed beyond a hybrid and
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Pliny distinguishes between Prunus, the plum fruit, and Cerasus,
the cherry fruit. Already in Pliny quite a number of cultivars are
cited, some possibly species or varieties, Aproniana, Lutatia,
Caeciliana, and so on. Pliny grades them by flavour, including dulcis
("sweet") and acer ("sharp"). and goes so far as to say that
before the Roman consul Lucius Licinius
Lucullus defeated Mithridates
in 74 BC, Cerasia … non fuere in Italia, "There were no cherry trees
in Italy". According to him,
Lucullus brought them in from Pontus and
in the 120 years since that time they had spread across
Although cultivated/domesticated varieties of
Prunus avium (sweet
cherry) didn’t exist in Britain or much of Europe, the tree in its
wild state is native to most of Europe, including Britain. Evidence of
consumption of the wild fruits has been found as far back as the
Bronze Age at a
Crannog in County Offaly, in Ireland.
Seeds of a number of cherry species have however been found in Bronze
Age and Roman archaeological sites throughout Europe. The reference to
"sweet" and "sour" supports the modern view that "sweet" was Prunus
avium; there are no other candidates among the cherries found. In 1882
Alphonse de Candolle
Alphonse de Candolle pointed out that seeds of
Prunus avium were found
Terramare culture of north
Italy (1500–1100 BC) and over the
layers of the Swiss pile dwellings. Of Pliny's statement he says
Since this error is perpetuated by its incessant repetition in
classical schools, it must once more be said that cherry trees (at
least the bird cherry) existed in
Italy before Lucullus, and that the
famous gourmet did not need to go far to seek the species with the
sour or bitter fruit.
De Candolle suggests that what
Lucullus brought back was a particular
Prunus avium from the Caucasus. The origin of cultivars of
P. avium is still an open question. Modern cultivated cherries differ
from wild ones in having larger fruit, 2–3 cm diameter. The
trees are often grown on dwarfing rootstocks to keep them smaller for
Folkard (1892) similarly identifies Lucullus's cherry as a cultivated
variety. He states that it was planted in Britain a century after its
introduction into Italy, but "disappeared during the Saxon period". He
notes that in the fifteenth century "Cherries on the ryse" (i.e. on
the twigs) was one of the street cries of London, but conjectures that
these were the fruit of "the native wild Cherry, or Gean-tree". The
cultivated variety was reintroduced into Britain by the fruiterer of
Henry VIII, who brought it from Flanders and planted a cherry orchard
Plant List: A Working List of All
Plant Species". Retrieved 27
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L. sweet cherry
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Prunus avium (Linnaeus) Linnaeus, 1755.
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^ Folkard, Richard (1892) "
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Data related to
Prunus avium at Wikispecies
Media related to
Prunus avium at Wikimedia Commons
Prunus avium - distribution map, genetic conservation units and
related resources. European Forest Genetic Resources Programme
Sweet (Bigaroon, Mazzard)
Royal Ann (Napoleon)
Sour (Amarelle, Morello)
Griotte de Kleparow
Plant List: rjp-383