At home in the Hill Country – escarpment black cherry


If you are considering a tree for your place, how about an attractive, relatively fast growing upright native that prefers a well-drained limestone site, has beautiful fragrant flowers that attract several butterfly species, has fruit eaten by many birds and mammals and finishes the year with wonderful fall color. If that description appeals to you, then your search is over. The escarpment black cherry is a native variety that is limited to the Edwards Plateau and south-central Texas.

The typical black cherry (Prunus serotina var. serotina) is native to eastern North America and ranges from Southeastern Canada, south through the eastern United States, west to east Texas and north to western Minnesota.

The eastern black cherry is the most widespread of the varieties, and because of its strong, hard and close-grained wood, it has been used commercially in furniture, tool handles and for professional and scientific instruments. The fruit is used for wines and jellies and a cough medicine has been extracted from the bark.

It was undoubtedly a specimen of the eastern variety, which was the target of an early hatchet-wielder with whom we are all familiar. At one time I sympathized with the young George. But at this time in my life, knowing from experience how hard it can be to grow and keep a good tree in the Hill Country, my sympathy has moved to his father.

escarpment black cherry
Escarpment black cherry (photo Delmar Cain)

In contrast to the large area the eastern variety occupies, the escarpment black cherry (Prunus serotina var. eximia) found only in a few Texas counties, generally in the canyons, streams and river bottoms or on the slopes, in the Edwards Plateau.

This medium-sized deciduous tree does better in the moister areas and where the alkalinity of the soil is more moderate. It will grow in full sun and in partial shade and if given a shot at full sun in its preferred habitat, it can grow quite rapidly.

Even under optimum conditions it usually does not exceed a height of 50 feet with a width of up to 35 feet. However, the listed national champion, located in Real County probably in the Lost Maples State Park area, has a height of 62 feet with a spread of 58 feet.

Speaking of maples, the cherry tree seems to appreciate a good maple neighborhood. In the Allegheny Mountains of the east, it is commonly found in forests of red maple, sugar maple, oak and hickory.

Since here in Boerne we are planting the town red and yellow with big-tooth maples, thanks to the generosity of Bill Lende and the Lende Foundation, the escarpment black cherries should fit right in.

Rufus Stevens, wildlife biologist with TPWD, has reported that the 3K Ranch, about 8 miles west of Boerne and now an officially accepted gift to the TPWD from the Kronkosky Trust, has a wonderful stand of big-tooth maples in at least one of the canyons on the ranch.

Maybe when the property is fully inventoried we can replace that national champion escarpment black cherry in Real County with one from Kendall County.

In the early spring as the escarpment black cherry begins to leaf with dark shiny green leaves, it adds at the end of the leafy twigs an additional bonus of white 3 to 4 inch raceme flowers that are slightly fragrant.

In the fall the fruit is a fleshy, red to black drupe with its single seed inside. The yellow to reddish fall foliage of the escarpment black cherry will provide pleasing color to any yard.

Wilted leaves, twigs, bark and even the fruit contain cyanogenic glycoside, which breaks down during digestion and becomes toxic to livestock. The wilted leaves are especially toxic.

Unfortunately, white-tailed deer know better than to eat the wilted leaves and twigs and don’t have a problem digesting the new leaves on the young trees. Where there is an overabundant deer population, no young trees will be left to mature if left unprotected. But when the escarpment black cherry does mature its fruit attracts a large number of songbirds, upland game birds and mammals. Apparently, they know the secret of eating no cherry until its time.

Several butterflies, including the Viceroy, Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and the Henry’s Elfin use the escarpment black cherry as a host plant.

When in bloom it attracts moths, butterflies and bees to nectar. With that kind of entertainment how can you afford to be without one at your place?

The escarpment black cherry (P serotina var. eximia), limited to the Hill Country, is one of three outlying populations. Two other varieties (P serotina var. rufula and P serotina var. virens) are located in the mountainous areas of west Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and also into northern Mexico.





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