Go to practically any pharmacy and you’re bound to find “wild cherry” cough and cold medicines. Though the herb is likely no longer an ingredient, the ubiquity of wild cherry flavoring harkens back to when the actual inner bark of the tree was considered an essential active ingredient for cough syrups instead of just a flavor. You can find wild cherry (Prunus spp.) across virtually all of North America, so it makes sense to identify and utilize this abundant native medicine for wellness. While other cherry species have been used similarly, black cherry (P. serotina) and chokecherry (P. virginiana) have the most established histories as herbal medicines.
Young black cherry trees have a dark, gray-red bark interspersed with lenticels (raised pores). The leaves are elliptical and pointed with serrated edges. This young tree may be confused with black birch (Betula lenta), though the black birch’s twigs and inner bark will smell strongly of wintergreen if crushed. As black cherry trees grow (obtaining a height of 50 to 80 feet in maturity), the outer bark loses some of its redness and starts to crack, creating a rough, flaky appearance that makes identifying the species easy. In spring, white flowers hang down in clusters called “racemes,” which later bear many pea-sized, purple-black berries called “drupes” that are bitter, tart, and astringent.
Chokecherry is similar in appearance to young black cherry trees, but it takes on a more thicket-like growing habit, rarely reaching beyond 30 feet tall. The berries may be redder, too. Whereas black cherry is a forest dweller, chokecherry most often occupies the edges of woods, streams, and ditches.
There are widely varying opinions about when you should collect wild cherry bark for use. Most tree barks are collected in late winter or early spring, when sap is flowing but before the leaves come out. However, wild cherry can be collected throughout the year, and it seems each herbalist has their own preferred harvest time. Personally, I wait for a cherry tree to come down in a storm and use the bark from that. Black cherry trees rarely fall on their own account, but it’s not uncommon for other trees to fall and topple them. This method is a bit random though, so another option is to contact local tree-removal companies and ask if they’ve recently cut any black cherry or chokecherry trees.
Quality wild cherry bark may also be obtained from a number of small-scale herbalists and wildcrafters. The keynote indicator of the quality of the dried herb is a rich cherry and bitter almond aroma that develops after the bark has been submerged in cool to cold water (the colder the water, the more slowly the aroma develops).
For medicinal use, collect the inner bark of black cherry trunks or the combined inner and outer bark of smaller black cherry and chokecherry branches. A rule of thumb regarding the inclusion of the outer bark: If you can easily scrape it off with your fingernail, then it can be left connected to the inner bark. For larger trunks and branches, a drawknife is an effective tool for removing the outer bark and for separating the inner bark from the sapwood.
Most modern pharmaceutical wild cherry cough syrups act as cough suppressants. However, the use of the herb is more nuanced than that. Herbalists know that coughing is an immune response and not something we should suppress. As such, the primary value of wild cherry is its action on the lungs and cough reflex; it relaxes tension and spasms associated with inflamed or irritated lung tissues.
The lungs and cough reflex can be imbalanced in many ways, and each calls for a different type of herb. Mucus congestion can be too dry or overly damp, or coughing can be wildly spasmodic. Wild cherry is most useful when respiratory tissues become inflamed and hyper-reactive; this is specifically what older herbals mean when they use words such as “irritable” or “hectic” to describe a cough. The lung tissues may feel hot, and breathing may be rapid and shallow. Rather than suppressing the cough, wild cherry helps to act on the conditions interfering with the cough reflex. Ideally, coughing should serve its function of expectoration, and if a cough is hyper-reactive, then it does so less effectively. This is similar to the way an effective immune response can resolve an infection or injury, but a hyperactive immune response can be associated with allergies.
Considerations and Contraindications
Because wild cherry is best used to treat hyper-reactivity in respiratory tissues, it’s not considered an appropriate solution when a person or their tissues are exhausted or show a decrease in responsiveness. If a cough is presenting weakly, this isn’t your medicine.
On a pharmacological note, it’s often said that wild cherry contains cyanide. This statement reflects a poor understanding of the tree. Wild cherry, along with apple, peach, almond, and other related species, contains compounds called “cyanogenic glycosides.” If damage to the plant occurs, these compounds react with enzymes contained within the plant to form hydrocyanic acid, which is indeed a dangerous compound. The presence of this compound increases as the damaged part of the plant wilts, but decreases as it dries out. This is why wild cherry bark may be used fresh or dried, but not in a state in between.
Probably because of the presence of cyanogenic glycosides, Aviva Romm lists wild cherry as a “teratogen” (an agent that causes malformation of an embryo) in her book Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health. Therefore, the plant is inappropriate to use during pregnancy. But beyond that, American Herbal Products Association’s Botanical Safety Handbook states that wild cherry has no known adverse events, side effects, or pharmacological considerations.
Make a Wild Cherry Cough Syrup
My favorite preparation of wild cherry is, without a doubt, the syrup. It tastes good, it’s soothing to tissues, and it makes a great vehicle for adding (possibly less-than-tasty) tinctures. I’ve offered two recipes for wild cherry syrup below. The first creates a shelf-stable syrup that needs no refrigeration but does require a lot of white sugar; the second uses honey, and less of it, but needs refrigeration to prolong its shelf life.
Step 1: Make a Filtered Cold Infusion
Both syrups start with a cold infusion of dried wild cherry bark. This should be coarsely ground (perhaps in a coffee grinder), but not finely powdered — you don’t want it to clump up, as that will lessen the ability of the water to extract the herb’s properties. For each ounce of herb, add 1 quart of cool to cold water (hot water will make it astringent and drying to tissues) and let it soak, covered, for at least 8 hours, or overnight. If you’ve used quality dried bark, it should smell richly of cherry and bitter almond. Strain the infusion well, pressing the remaining herb (called the “marc”) to get as much water out as possible, and then pour the strained infusion through a coffee filter to remove any fine plant material that may have made it through your strainer. This is important, because any remaining plant material can increase the risk of spoilage.
Method 1: Shelf-Stable Syrup
To make a shelf-stable wild cherry syrup, mix your cold infusion with refined white sugar. The sugar must be refined to ensure preservation, so avoid evaporated cane juice, coconut sugar, and other more natural sugars. To each pint of filtered cold infusion, add 2 pounds of refined sugar in a clean bottle or jar, cap it, and shake the mixture vigorously until the sugar is dissolved. It’s easiest to do most of the shaking when you first add the sugar, and then let the bottle rest awhile to settle those last few crystals. A bit of time sitting in the syrup will soften the sugar up so that it ultimately requires less work to incorporate. (When making syrups, people typically apply heat to dissolve the added sugar. However, with plants containing cyanogenic glycosides, this cold process results in a stronger syrup with a more pronounced aroma.)
Note that even though these high-sugar syrups are generally shelf-stable, they may still spoil if the bottles or caps aren’t clean or if the infusions aren’t well-filtered. Store syrups in a cool environment, such as a basement or root cellar.
Method 2: Syrup That Requires Refrigeration
To make a syrup with honey or other unrefined sweeteners, create a 50-50 blend with your filtered cold infusion and sweetener. (If you want flavor that’s out of this world, use pure maple sugar.) Shake this 50-50 blend until the honey, maple sugar, or other sweetener is entirely dissolved. Remember, these syrups aren’t shelf-stable, because they have a higher amount of water, which means you’ll need to store them in a refrigerator or freezer. I keep the bulk of my syrups frozen and then thaw out small amounts to use as needed by simply running the jar under hot water. If you’re a savvy canner, you could can the syrup for shelf storage until you need it, and then refrigerate after opening.
Wild cherry syrup is perfectly safe to take in spoonful doses as needed. Feel free to use as-is, but you can also add tinctures to the syrup, or stir the syrup into teas. If a cough is very dry, I like to mix wild cherry syrup with a cold infusion of marshmallow root. For damper coughs, combine it with teas or tinctures of warming aromatic herbs, such as thyme, osha, or star anise. To enhance its antispasmodic effects, add in a drop or two of lobelia tincture. Wild cherry syrup is a spectacular base for an endless combination of herbs.
Even well-crafted syrups can spoil, so take care to look for signs of mold or anything that seems off. If upon opening you hear a pronounced hiss, then your syrup may have fermented and left you with wild cherry mead — some spoilage is better than others!