Prunus pensylvanica

Pin Cherry

Prunus pensylvanica, Pin Cherry

Pin Cherry, BWCAW
Photo © by Earl J.S. Rook

Flora, fauna, earth, and sky...
The natural history of the northwoods


  • Prunus, from the Latin
  • pensylvanica, from the Latin, "of Pennsylvania"
  • Common Name from the small fruits
  • Other common names include Fire Cherry, Bird Cherry, Wild Red Cherry, Northern Pin Cherry, Pigeon Cherry, cerisier de Pennsylvanie (Qué), pilvikirsikka (Fin)


  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
      • Class Magnoliopsida, the Dicotyledons
      • Subclass Rosidae, the Roses
        • Order Rosales, the Roses
          • Family Rosaceae, the Roses; with Amelanchier (Juneberries), Aronia (Chokeberries), Crataegus (Hawthorns), Malus (Apples), Physocarpus (Ninebark), Potentilla (Cinquefoils), Rubus (Blackberries, Dewberries, and Raspberries), Sorbus (Mountain Ash), and Spiraea (Spirea)
            • Genus Prunus, the Cherries & Plums
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 24799


  • A small desiduous tree to 30' tall, 1' in diameter. Trunk straight, with narrow, rounded crown; in the open, it has a short trunk with a flat-topped crown; the crown is much reduced in the shade of a forest.
  • Leaf alternate, simple, lanceolate, finely serrated margin, 3"-5" long, 1"-1 1/2" wide. Fall color bright red orange.
  • Flower small and white in flat-topped clusters of 5 to 7.
  • Fruit a red drupe, 1/4" in diameter, ripening late June to July, very sour. Stones and leaves contain toxic cyanide, but the flesh is not harmful.
  • Twigs slender, glabrous, reddish-brown; buds are small (1/8") reddish brown and clustered at the branch tips. Twig has a mild bitter almond taste.
  • Bark lustrous, shiny, red brown, with long horizontal orange lenticels; may peel off in horizontal strips.
  • Roots: deep widespreading laterals
  • Fast growing and short lived.



  • Newfoundland to southern Mackenzie District and British Columbia, south to Montana and Colorado, the Black Hills, Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Jersey; northeast to New England.


  • Dry to moist open forests and clearings; commonly after fire or other disturbances.
  • Because the berries are a favourite of many birds, it is often difficult to find ripe fruit on the trees.




  • Pin cherries were eaten by several First Nations peoples, depending on their local abundance, but the cherries did not dry well. They also used the bark for decorating baskets.


  • Pin cherries make good jelly.


  • Reproduces by seed and vegetatively by suckers.
  • Seed dispersal by animal consumers
  • Seeds require cold stratification to break dormancy


  • By seed, following cold stratification.


  • Hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average minimum annual temperature -40ºF)
  • Cultivars and species available by mail order from specialty suppliers or at local nurseries
  • Soil pH: 6.1 to 7.5
  • Transplants with difficulty.



  • One year, while waiting at Round Lake for the outfitter to come to pick us up at the end of a trip, I collected a handful of berries from a large, mature Pin Cherry at the landing. After stratification of the seed I ended up with several seedlings, one of which became a 10' tree in its second season and is now thriving in the garden, a living reminder of that trip.

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Last updated on 4 March, 2006