Herb: Rum Cherry

Latin name: Prunus serotina

Synonyms: Padus serotina, Prunus eximia

Family: Rosaceae (Rose Family)

Medicinal use of Rum Cherry:

Rum cherry was widely employed medicinally by various 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 of the root, trunk and branches is antitussive, astringent, pectoral, sedative, stomachic, tonic. The medicinal properties of this plant are destroyed by boiling, so the plant should only be allowed to steep in warm water. The root bark and the aromatic inner bark have expectorant and mild sedative properties and a tea made from either of them has been used to ease pain in the early stages of labour. The tea is also used in the treatment of fevers, colds, sore throats, diarrhoea etc. The bark is harvested in the autumn and should not be stored for longer than one year since it quickly loses its medicinal properties. Young thin bark is preferred. A decoction of the inner bark has been used in the treatment of laryngitis. The root bark has been used as a wash on old sores and ulcers. The bark contains the glycoside prunasin, which is converted in the digestive tract to the highly toxic hydrocyanic acid. Prunasin is at its highest level in the bark in the autumn so the bark is harvested at this time and can be dried for later use. In small amounts this exceedingly poisonous compound stimulates respiration, improves digestion and gives a sense of well-being. The fruit is astringent and has been used in the treatment of dysentery.

Description of the plant:


18 m
(59 feet)

May to

Habitat of the herb:

Found in a variety of soils, preferring moist fertile conditions on north or east facing slopes or protected coves. Dry woods.

Edible parts of Rum Cherry:

Fruit - raw or cooked in pies, jellies, stews etc. It must be fully ripe or else it will have a bitter flavour. The fruit can taste sweet or bitter. The better fruits have a thin skin and a juicy flesh with a pleasant vinous flavour. The fruit can also be used as a flavouring. The taste is best when the plant is grown in a sunny position. The fruit is about 9mm in diameter 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. An infusion of the twigs is used as a beverage. An extract from the bark is used commercially as a flavouring in soft drinks, sweets, syrups and baked goods.

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. Wood - close and straight-grained, light, strong, rather hard, highly shock resistant. It bends well, works well, finishes smoothly, glues well, seasons well, shrinks moderately and is moderately free from checking and warping. It weighs about 36lb per cubic foot and takes a beautiful polish. It is widely used for furniture, cabinet making, the interior finish of buildings etc.

Propagation of Rum 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:

Found in a variety of soils, preferring moist fertile conditions on north or east facing slopes or protected coves. Dry woods.

Known hazards of Prunus serotina:

The seeds and leaves of this species contain high quantities of hydrogen cyanide, a poison that gives almonds their characteristic flavour. This toxin is readily detected by its bitter taste. Usually present in too small a quantity to do any harm, 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.