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Wild Cherry Bark in Natural Cough Syrup

Learn how to identify wild cherry trees, harvest and dry the bark, and concoct soothing cough syrups your whole family will love.

| November/December 2018

  • The ubiquity of wild cherry flavoring in cough syrups harkens back to when the inner bark of the tree was an essential ingredient instead of just a flavor.
    Photo by Adobe/Sly
  • In spring, black cherry trees grow clusters of lovely white flowers.
    Photo by Flickr/Matt Lavin
  • With the outer bark peeled away, you’ll see that the inner bark of wild cherry trees is also a different color than the heartwood.
    Photo by ©Joybilee™ Farm
  • The inner bark of wild cherry is what should be used medicinally.
    Photo by ©Joybilee™ Farm
  • If you can scrape the outer bark from the inner bark using your fingernail, it’s safe to include in your wild cherry preparations.
    Photo by jim mcdonald
  • Wild cherry cough syrup tastes good, is soothing to inflamed tissues, and is a great vehicle to which to add other tinctures.
    Photo by Getty/Solnuha

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.

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