Make birds happy by planting a black cherry tree in your yard | Legare

·3 min read
Black cherry trees blossoms.
Black cherry trees blossoms.

If you want to nurture birds in your yard, you cannot go wrong by planting a black cherry tree (Prunus serotina). It is considered a keystone species, which means it has a disproportionately large effect on the abundance and diversity of other species, like insects, in an ecosystem.

There are 247 species of caterpillars that feed on plants in the Prunus genus in my Tallahassee zip code. Entomologist, ecologist, and author Doug Tallamy considers black cherry and other native Prunus species as his number two pick of ecological gold in the landscape, with oaks rated number one.

Visit National Wildlife Federation’s Plant Finder and type in your zip code to find out what native plants nurture the most caterpillars in your area.

You may wonder why I am writing about caterpillars when this article is supposed to be about attracting birds.

Black cherry is one of the host plants for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar.
Black cherry is one of the host plants for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar.

Let us look at one species – the Cecropia Moth. An individual female lays up to 300 eggs on its host plants of mainly black cherry, birch, or maple. Of those 300 caterpillars that hatch from these eggs, how many live to reproduce as a moth? Only two or three!

What happens to all the others?

They are consumed as high-quality protein by spiders, lizards, wasps, and yes, birds – a complex food web with a native plant at its base. These caterpillars are produced when the leaves are young and tender, a time when birds are busy searching for insects, primarily caterpillars, to feed their young.

There are butterflies such as the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Red-spotted Purple that are associated with black cherry, but moth species produce a good many more caterpillars. One that comes to mind are tent caterpillars which are highly attractive to Yellow-billed Cuckoos.

Reddish black fruit is eaten by migrating and resident birds.
Reddish black fruit is eaten by migrating and resident birds.

Growing up on the south shore of Long Island, I have fond memories associated with a grove of black cherries, also known as wild cherry, in our front yard. It is, indeed, a beautiful tree with greyish-black textured bark, and its long, slender densely packed white flower clusters that bear nectar and pollen for native bees and honeybees.

The flowers are followed by abundant small dark purplish red to black fruit called drupes that are highly favored by birds from thrushes and woodpeckers to sparrows, cardinals, tanagers, and bluebirds. Its fruits are especially important to migrating birds. And it even has nice fall color – brilliant yellow and reddish orange.

You can purchase a black cherry from a plant nursery but if you look around at the small seedlings that pop up in your yard, there is a good chance one may be black cherry.

The copious amounts of fruit provide nourishment for birds and then birds do their part by dispersing the seeds, after they have been processed through their digestive tracts, to old fields, hedgerows, and urban and suburban yards.

Black cherry will grow in sun or partial shade, 70 to 90 feet tall, in average to well-drained soil in the eastern United States, as far south as the Tampa/Orlando area.

What you plant in your yard matters. Your landscaping can be mere decoration, or it can be habitat for birds and other wildlife. It is up to you.

Donna Legare is the retired co-founder of Native Nurseries and is a volunteer writer for UF/IFAS Extension Leon County, an Equal Opportunity Institution. For gardening questions, email the extension office at

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Black cherry trees are key to food chain for birds and other wildlife