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Seeing the wild cherries that have always been there

Elspeth Hay

I’ve been thinking about how long it takes to really get to know a place. Take the wild cherries, for instance.

I discovered them last July outside my parents’ house in Maine, along the edge of the woods where I played as a kid. The trees were 20, maybe 30 feet tall, reaching for the pine canopy, laden with tiny red fruits. The leaves looked like the sweet cherry trees I’d planted at our house in Wellfleet. I reached up and grabbed a cherry, then bit in. The fruit was tart but good—sweet enough I didn’t pucker up. It was small in proportion to the pit, the way a beach plum is compared to the full size fruit.

Have these always been here? I asked my parents. Have what always been where? They replied. They hadn’t noticed the wild cherries either, not for 45 years.

This spring I saw trees with similar leaves in bloom off the side of our deck. They’d been small when we first moved in but now they were reaching higher, taller, growing wider and healthier every year. The flowers looked nearly identical to the flowers on our cultivated sweet cherry trees.

My girls noticed them too, and we watched as the bees did their work and the flowers faded. For weeks, we waited. Would there be fruit?

One afternoon recently, long after we’d turned our attention to other things, Sally came running into the kitchen. Mom! she exclaimed. The cherries! They’re there! We went out to look and there they were: dozens of marble-sized wild cherries, glossy green and not yet ripe.

Credit Elspeth Hay
Picking wild sour cherries.

I emailed a friend who’s a naturalist. What are these? I asked. Naturalized wild sour cherries, he guessed, Prunus cerasus. They’re in the Rosaceae family, along with roses, almonds, apples, pears, and a long list of other fruits. They’re native to Europe and came over with colonial settlers in the 1600s.

There are wild American cherries here, too, he told me. Prunus serotina, commonly called Black cherries for their small dark fruits that grow in clusters like tiny grapes. He said a man he used to work with at the National Seashore made wine out of the black cherry fruits. Later that night I read that the inner layer of bark from these trees can be used for a cough syrup. And that if you’re not sure about your identification you can peel back the bark of the black cherries to the inner layer. It should smell just like an almond.

The next morning I walked back out to my deck to pick more sour cherries. I looked to my left and suddenly realized that right next to my wild sour cherries is a stand of wild Black cherry trees. I checked the bark just to be sure, and there it was, the almond scent, clear as could be.

When we think about place a year, a decade, a lifetime, the older I get the more I understand that these are just drops in a bucket. And the more I reconnect with the life around me, the more I understand how many times we have to look to really see.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.