Herb: Bitter Cherry

Latin name: Prunus emarginata

Family: Rosaceae (Rose Family)

Medicinal use of Bitter Cherry:

Bitter cherry was employed medicinally by several native North American Indian tribes who used it to treat a variety of complaints. It is little, if at all, used in modern herbalism. The bark is blood purifier, cardiac, laxative and tonic. An infusion of the bark has been used in the treatment of tuberculosis and eczema. A decoction of the root and inner bark has been taken daily as a treatment for heart troubles. An infusion of the bark, combined with crab apple bark (Malus spp) has been used as a cure-all tonic in treating colds and various other ailments. The bark, stuck on with resin, has been used as a dressing for wounds, swellings etc. An infusion of the rotten wood has been used as a contraceptive. Although no specific mention has been seen for this species, all members of the genus contain amygdalin and prunasin, substances which break down in water to form hydrocyanic acid (cyanide or prussic acid). In small amounts this exceedingly poisonous compound stimulates respiration, improves digestion and gives a sense of well-being.

Description of the plant:


5 m
(16 feet)



Habitat of the herb:

Moist woods or by watercourses in grassland and sagebrush desert at medium elevations in mountains.

Edible parts of Bitter Cherry:

Fruit - raw or cooked. Intensely bitter. Some native North American Indian tribes saw the fruit as a great delicacy and an important food source, though others only ate it occasionally because of its bitter taste. The fruit is 8 - 15mm in diameter with a thick flesh, and contains one large seed. Seed - raw or cooked. Do not eat the seed if it is too bitter - see the notes above on toxicity.

Other uses of the herb:

A green dye can be obtained from the leaves. A dark grey to green dye can be obtained from the fruit. The bark is used to ornament baskets and is also split into strips and used for making baskets that are watertight and resist decay. The bark is both strong and flexible as well as being ornamental. The thin outer bark can be peeled off the tree in the same way as birch trees. It has been used to make baskets, mats, ropes and as an ornament on bows, arrows etc. The bark can also be made into a string. Wood - close-grained, soft, brittle. It is sometimes used for furniture because it takes a high polish. An excellent fuel.

Propagation of Bitter Cherry:

Seed - requires 2 - 3 months cold stratification and is best sown in a cold frame as soon as it is ripe. Sow stored seed in a cold frame as early in the year as possible. Protect the seed from mice etc. The seed can be rather slow, sometimes taking 18 months to germinate. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle. Grow them on in a greenhouse or cold frame for their first winter and plant them out in late spring or early summer of the following year. Cuttings of half-ripe wood with a heel, July/August in a frame. Softwood cuttings from strongly growing plants in spring to early summer in a frame. Layering in spring.

Cultivation of the herb:

Moist woods or by watercourses in grassland and sagebrush desert at medium elevations in mountains.

Known hazards of Prunus emarginata:

Although no specific mention has been seen for this species, it belongs to a genus where most, if not all members of the genus produce hydrogen cyanide, a poison that gives almonds their characteristic flavour. This toxin is found mainly in the leaves and seed and is readily detected by its bitter taste. It is usually present in too small a quantity to do any harm but any very bitter seed or fruit should not be eaten. In small quantities, hydrogen cyanide has been shown to stimulate respiration and improve digestion, it is also claimed to be of benefit in the treatment of cancer. In excess, however, it can cause respiratory failure and even death.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.