|Watercolor of Black Cherry leaves and berries|
As part of the proposed February 2017 opening of the Cabrini Woods Nature Sanctuary, near Fort Tryon Park, I was asked to draw a leaf of the Black cherry, Prunus serotia. Planning a drawing involves a few steps including finding pictures online, in books, and going to look at the actual trees. I knew there were several black cherry trees in the Ramble in Central Park, so I went to see them. I soon realized that in drawing the black cherry, I would need to include the cherries that the trees produce, berries that are almost entirely gone by this time of year. These cherries are food for all kinds of wildlife especially squirrels and birds who eat the berries when they are red or purple, but we humans generally wait to eat them until they are so ripe that they turn blackish purple. Interestingly, when you look at a group of cherries on a branch, you see them in a variety of colors and ripeness and that is what I wanted to show.
Black cherry trees are members of the Rosaceae or Rose family – a family that includes apples, pears, peaches, plums, apricots, almonds and many vines like strawberries, blackberries, and roses of course. Black cherry trees produce flowers in the early spring, long pendulous blossoms that bees enjoy. And then there are the cherries. Like apricots and apples, the seeds contain compounds that can be converted into cyanide which can be released if the seed is ground or minced, but the flesh does not contain the enzyme that converts the chemical into the dangerous form of cyanide. However, there needs to be a word of caution about the foliage. When it wilts, it contains a chemical that converts it into hydrogen cyanide if eaten by animals. Farmers with grazing animals need to be aware of this, and they often remove these trees so the livestock do not eat the wilted foliage. But for most of us, the trees do not pose a problem—we eat the cherries and not the leaves. The black cherry timber is renowned for its beauty and durability. The trees themselves grow easily in the urban environment and are replanted through the droppings of the animals who eat the cherries. It is exciting to research a plant and to have the opportunity to draw it, especially knowing that it will be used as part of the signage in what will be a nature sanctuary in one of the loveliest parks in the NYC area.