Wild Cherry: Exploring Types, Identification, and Edibility of its Fruit
Updated: Jul 11
The United Kingdom is home to a variety of native trees, each with its own unique characteristics and contributions to the ecosystem. Among them, the wild cherry (Prunus avium) stands out for its vibrant blossoms, attractive foliage, and delectable fruit. In this article, we will delve into the world of the wild cherry, exploring its different types, methods of identification, and the edibility of its delicious fruit.
Types of UK Wild Cherry
Gean Cherry: The Gean cherry (Prunus avium) is the most common type of wild cherry found in the UK. It features a compact growth habit and produces abundant clusters of white flowers in spring, followed by dark red to black cherries that are prized for their sweet flavour.
Bird Cherry: The bird cherry (Prunus padus), also known as hackberry or hagberry, is another native wild cherry species. It is characterised by its slender, elongated clusters of white flowers and small, bitter-tasting fruits. The bird cherry is an important food source for birds and insects.
Wild Cherry Hybrids: In addition to the pure wild cherry types, there are also hybrid varieties that occur naturally or through intentional breeding. These hybrids exhibit characteristics of both the wild cherry and other cherry species, resulting in variations in flower colour, fruit size, and flavour.
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Identifying the UK Wild Cherry
To identify the UK wild cherry, consider the following key features:
Tree Size and Shape: Wild cherry trees are deciduous and can reach heights of 15 to 30 metres, depending on their age and growing conditions. They typically have a broad, rounded crown with branches that spread out horizontally.
Bark: The bark of a wild cherry tree is smooth and shiny when young, often with horizontal lines and a reddish-brown colour. As the tree ages, the bark becomes darker and develops distinctive horizontal fissures.
Leaves: Wild cherry leaves are simple, alternate, and have an elliptical shape with pointed tips. They are dark green in color and have serrated edges. The leaves are typically 6 to 14 centimetres long and have visible veins running through them.
Flowers: In spring, wild cherry trees produce beautiful clusters of fragrant white flowers. The flowers have five petals and are around 2 to 2.5 centimeters in diameter. They attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
Fruits: The fruits of wild cherry trees are small, round cherries that ripen from green to red and finally to dark purple or black when fully mature. They are typically 1 to 2 centimetres in diameter and have a sweet or slightly tart taste. The fruits are a valuable food source for birds and other wildlife.
Habitat: Wild cherry trees can be found in a variety of habitats, including woodlands, hedgerows, and open fields. They prefer well-drained soils and are often found growing alongside other tree species such as oak, beech, and ash.
Seasonal Changes: Throughout the seasons, wild cherry trees exhibit distinctive changes. In spring, they bloom with beautiful white flowers, which are followed by the growth of new leaves. During autumn, the leaves turn shades of yellow, orange, and red before eventually falling off in winter.
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Where can you find Wild Cherry Trees?
Wild cherry trees can be found in various locations across the UK. They are distributed in woodlands, forests, national parks, gardens, parks, and hedgerows throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. While their presence can vary within regions, here are some notable areas where wild cherry trees can be found:
England: Wild cherry trees are abundant in areas such as the South Downs, the Cotswolds, the Yorkshire Dales, and the Lake District. They are often present in woodlands, forests, and national parks.
Scotland: Wild cherry trees are concentrated in the southern and central regions of Scotland. They can be found in woodlands, forests, and along riverbanks.
Wales: Wild cherry trees are scattered across Wales, with notable populations in the Brecon Beacons National Park, Snowdonia National Park, and other wooded areas.
Northern Ireland: While less common compared to other parts of the UK, wild cherry trees can still be found in certain locations in Northern Ireland. They are often present in woodland habitats and forested areas.
When looking for wild cherry trees, it's best to visit woodlands, forests, nature reserves, national parks, and gardens known for their diverse flora. Keep in mind that their distribution can vary, and the best time to spot them is during their flowering season in spring when they display beautiful white blossoms.
Are Wild Cherries Edible?
The fruit of the wild cherry is edible, though its flavour can vary between different types and individual trees. The Gean cherry, with its sweet taste, is particularly favoured for eating fresh or for use in culinary preparations. The bird cherry, however, has fruits that are more bitter and are not commonly consumed by humans.
Remember to only consume fruits that are fully ripe, as unripe cherries can be quite bitter. The sweetness of the Gean cherry can be enhanced when used in recipes such as wild cherry jams, pies, and desserts, making it a delightful addition to your culinary endeavours.
Remember not to eat the pips of a wild cherry, in fact any cherry, they do carry significant amounts of toxins and are poisonous.
Culinary uses of Wild Cherries
Here are some delicious ways that you can use wild cherries.
Baking: Wild cherries can be used in various baked goods, such as pies, tarts, crumbles, and cakes. They add a sweet and tangy flavor to desserts and pair well with other fruits like strawberries and rhubarb.
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Preserves and Jams: Wild cherries can be made into delicious preserves and jams. Their natural sweetness and tartness make them a great choice for spreading on toast, scones, or incorporating into sauces.
Liqueurs and Spirits: Wild cherries can be used to infuse liqueurs and spirits, such as cherry liqueur or cherry brandy. The cherries can be soaked in alcohol to extract their flavours, resulting in a deep cherry flavoured spirit.
Syrups and Sauces: Wild cherry syrup can be made by simmering the cherries with sugar and water. The resulting syrup can be used to drizzle over pancakes, waffles, ice cream, or used as a topping for desserts. Additionally, the cherries can be cooked down into a sauce that can be used as a topping for meats or as a base for savoury dishes.
Cocktails and Beverages: Wild cherries can be used as a garnish for cocktails or muddled to add flavour to drinks. They can be added to classic cocktails like Old Fashioned or used in fruity concoctions like cherry lemonade or cherry mojitos.
When using wild cherries for culinary purposes, it's important to note that the fruit should be ripe and properly washed before consumption. Additionally, be cautious with the pips as they contain cyanide, so it's advisable to remove them before using the cherries in recipes.
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Wild Cherry Recipes
Wild cherries are so adapatable in the kitchen. They can be readily used in both sweet and savoury disches. Here are three quick versatile wild cherry preserve recipes, along with interesting ways to use them in both sweet and savoury dishes:
Pickled Wild Cherries
900g wild cherries, pitted
500ml white wine vinegar
250g granulated sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
Pinch of salt
Sterilise a jar or several smaller jars by boiling them in water for a few minutes.
Rinse the pitted wild cherries and place them into the sterilised jar(s).
In a saucepan, combine the white wine vinegar, sugar, cinnamon stick, cloves, peppercorns, bay leaf, and salt. Bring the mixture to a boil.
Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, allowing the flavours to infuse.
Pour the hot pickling liquid over the cherries, ensuring they are completely covered.
Let the jar(s) cool to room temperature, then seal tightly and refrigerate for at least 1 week before using.
Sweet Usage Ideas (Pickled Wild Cherries):
Serve pickled wild cherries alongside a cheese board or charcuterie platter.
Use them as a tangy and sweet topping for ice cream or yoghurt.
Incorporate them into fruit salads or grain bowls for a burst of flavour.
Pair them with dark chocolate for an interesting sweet and sour combination.
Savoury Usage Ideas (Pickled Wild Cherries):
Add pickled wild cherries to salads, especially those with bitter greens like rocket or radicchio.
Use them as a garnish for savoury dishes such as roasted meats or grilled fish.
Slice them and include them in sandwiches or wraps for a unique twist.
Mix them with cream cheese or goat cheese for a delicious spread on crackers or bread.
Wild Cherry Compote
900g wild cherries, pitted
200g granulated sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
1 vanilla pod, split and scraped
In a saucepan, combine the pitted wild cherries, sugar, lemon juice, orange zest, and vanilla pod (including the scraped seeds).
Place the saucepan over medium heat and bring the mixture to a simmer.
Cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the cherries are tender and the compote thickens slightly.
Remove the vanilla pod and let the compote cool before transferring it to a jar or container.
Sweet Usage Ideas (Wild Cherry Compote):
Spoon the wild cherry compote over pancakes, waffles, or French toast.
Use it as a filling for pastries, such as turnovers or hand pies.
Swirl it into plain yogurt or cottage cheese for a fruity and creamy breakfast or snack.
Layer it with custard or whipped cream in trifles or parfaits.
Savoury Usage Ideas (Wild Cherry Compote):
Pair the wild cherry compote with roasted or grilled duck or game meats for a sweet and savoury combination.
Use it as a glaze for roasted pork chop or chicken breasts.
Spread it on sandwiches with goat cheese and rocket for a gourmet twist.
Serve it alongside a cheese plate, particularly with aged or sharp cheeses.
Wild Cherry Chutney
900g wild cherries, pitted and halved
1 red onion, finely chopped
200g brown sugar
150ml apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon chilli flakes (optional)
Salt to taste
In a saucepan, combine all the ingredients.
Place the saucepan over medium heat and bring the mixture to a boil.
Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour or until the chutney thickens and the cherries are tender.
Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt or spices if desired.
Allow the chutney to cool before transferring it to sterilised jars.
Sweet Usage Ideas (Wild Cherry Chutney):
Spread the wild cherry chutney on toasted baguette slices and top with soft cheese like Brie or Camembert.
Use it as a topping for crackers or oatcakes when serving a cheese platter.
Mix it with cream cheese or mascarpone to create a sweet and tangy dip for fruit or crackers or biscuits.
Savoury Usage Ideas (Wild Cherry Chutney):
Serve the wild cherry chutney as a condiment with roasted meats, such as lamb or beef.
Use it as a glaze for grilled pork chops or chicken thighs.
Spread it on burgers or sliders for a unique twist on traditional toppings.
Mix it with mayo or Greek yogurt to create a yummy sandwich spread or dip for chicken.
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The wild cherry, with its various types and alluring characteristics, adds beauty and flavour to the British countryside. Whether you come across the Gean cherry or the bird cherry, their distinctive features make them relatively easy to identify. Wild cherries, especially the Gean cherry, offers a delicious treat that can be enjoyed in various ways.
In addition to their edible qualities, UK wild cherry trees play a vital role in supporting biodiversity. Their blossoms attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, contributing to the pollination of other plants in the ecosystem. The fruits provide nourishment for birds and small mammals, adding to the overall ecological balance.
Next time you venture into the UK countryside, keep an eye out for the elegant wild cherry trees. Take a moment to appreciate their beautiful flowers and, when the time is right, indulge in the delectable fruits they offer. The wild cherry is a true treasure, combining natural beauty with culinary delights in a way that is uniquely British.
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