The Wild Cherry or Sweet Cherry (Prunus avium) is a species of cherry, native to Europe, northwest Africa, and western Asia, from the British Isles south to Morocco and Tunisia, north to the Trondheimsfjord region in Norway and east to southern Sweden, Poland, Ukraine, the Caucasus, and northern Iran, with a small disjunct population in the western Himalaya.
It is a deciduous tree growing to 15-32 m tall, with a trunk up to 1.5 m diameter. Young trees show strong apical dominance with a straight trunk and symmetrical conical crown, becoming rounded to irregular on old trees. 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 long and 4–7 cm 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 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 peduncle, 2.5–3.5 cm diameter, with five pure white petals, yellowish stamens, and a superior ovary; they are hermaphroditic, and pollinated by bees. The fruit is a drupe 1–2 cm in diameter (larger in some cultivated selections), bright red to dark purple when mature in mid summer, edible, variably sweet to somewhat astringent and bitter to eat fresh; it 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. The fruit are readily eaten by numerous 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.
Wild Cherry has been known as Gean or Mazzard, both largely obsolete names in modern English, though more recently '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. The name "wild cherry" has also been applied in a general or colloquial sense to other species of Prunus growing in their native habitats, particularly to Black Cherry Prunus serotina.
Some eighteenth and nineteenth century botanical authors ascribed an origin to western Asia based on the writings of Pliny; however, archaeological finds of seeds from prehistoric Europe contradict this view (see below).
Prunus avium means "bird cherry" in the Latin language, a translation by Linnaeus of the species' Danish and German names (Fugle-Kirsebær, Vogel-Kirsche, respectively). In English, the name Bird Cherry refers to Prunus padus.
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 plus or minus 10 B.C. The natural forest was largely cleared at that time.
As the ancestor of the cultivated sweet cherry, the Wild 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 small input). Various cherry cultivars are now grown world-wide 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.
The gum from bark wounds is aromatic and can be chewed as a substitute for chewing gum.
A green dye can also be prepared from the plant.
He 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 Europe to Britain.
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 pointed out that seeds of Prunus avium were found in the Terramare culture of north Italy (1500-1100 BC) and over the layers of the Swiss pile dwellings. Of Pliny's statement he says (p. 210):
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 cultivar of 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 easier harvesting.