Thursday, April 25, 2013

Cool plant #2: Escarpment black cherry

Shortly after we built our house, we noticed an interesting tree tucked into a live oak motte down by the shack – er, Men’s Institute of Higher Learning. We didn’t recognize it, and neither did our family plant expert, my mother-in-law Mary Anne Pickens. Ah well.

Several years ago we noticed it blooming in the spring, and as a result were able to make an identification:  Escarpment black cherry (Prunus serotina var.  eximia). So far as we know, it is the only one on our property. Our specimen is 30 feet tall and lovely.

Voila! I present the second in my occasional series on species endemic to my area!

According to the Wildflower Center website, the escarpment black cherry is a “distinct and isolated geographic variety of black cherry (Prunus serotina) found only in the calcareous soils of central Texas.” It is naturally occurring from Burnet and Williamson counties south to Comal and Medina counties, and west to Kimble and Kinney counties. We are in the middle of that area.

The escarpment black cherry is the white multi-trunked tree behind the live oak leaning across in the front.
 As you can see from the picture, it sports light green leaves with light-colored branches and an open structure. It has lovely blooms in April and May, fruit, and leaves that turn yellow in the fall. We get really excited about fall color here, where our most common trees are evergreen.

Its cherries are edible, but other parts of the tree are poisonous (possibly fatal) to humans and herbivorous animals. Birds and mammals like the fruit, and a number of moths and butterflies enjoy its nectar and use it as a larval host.

The Wildflower Center notes that furniture makers like its wood for its “lustrous, dark red tint.” We have two very dear friends who make furniture. We steer them away from this tree when they visit. They can’t have it.

Here's a closer shot, with the gray water drains
coming out of the shack behind the tree.

I’ve just figured out something else about this tree. The Wildflower Center says it needs moist, but well-drained soil. At first thought, this tree’s home would not seem to be moist. Ah, think again. The tree grows near the end of the gray water pipe from the shack. When we bought the property, renters lived in the shack, which had water but no septic, only a gray water drain from a kitchen sink. Also, they used an outdoor shower (no hot water!) located nearby and slightly uphill from the tree.

It’s a wonder the beauty didn’t perish after we booted the renters and the shack sat empty. I guess the tree was established enough that it could survive without those water sources. I did water it in the terribly dry summer of 2011. It is one of my prize botanical specimens, and I want it to live!

Click here to read about another plant native to my geographic area, the twist-leaf yucca.

Favorite spot in the garden:

While hanging laundry today I looked up and saw this phalanx of twist-leaf yucca bloom stalks. My young garden helper and I gathered rocks earlier this year to put around the base of the yuccas for a rock garden effect, which makes the group stand out. I don't remember so many blooming together before. Aren't they cool?

Now some folks would wait until they bloom before taking photos. However, savvy central Texas gardeners know that deer particularly enjoy yucca bloom stalks. I imagine they taste like asparagus. There is no guarantee these will make it to full bloom. If they do, I'll take another picture!


  1. That cherry is a cool plant find, I'd love to have that show up in my yard! Your rock garden looks very at home. Twistleaf yucca still grows in untended areas of our neighborhood like fence lines and I always enjoy being reminded what was here before the houses.

    I've been using deer repellent on the red hesperaloe stalks and am amazed how well it works. The deer have snapped a few but most remain. I wish they would eat them instead of just leaving them on the ground. At least I'd feel like they were of some use.

  2. How nice to have something uncommon on one's land...gray water line especially, creating a wet spot for oasis species. I wonder if the wood on those is toxic when smoked, given regular cherry wood is good for grilling many meats?

    The twistleaf yuccas before bloom is an interesting idea - I should take some photos of that before our yuccas bloom.

    1. I don't know about grilling. The Wildflower Center says bark, wilted leaves and seeds of all Prunus species are especially toxic, but all parts are poisonous except fruit.

  3. How exciting to find a tree that is so unusual - and only grows in a small area. My very favorite jello flavor is black cherry. Do the fruits taste like that? I also had no idea that deer loved yucca blooms!

    1. I've not tried the fruit yet - I'll get back to you on that. On deer: oh yes. They've topped some of the blooms along the driveway already.

  4. This is a bit of a late entry but I was searching for recipes for escarpment cherries and ran across this page. I have several young escarpment cherry trees, one which has been fruiting for the 15 years we've lived here - it is only about 6 feet tall.

    "Here" is toward the north edge of Williamson County (near Walburg). We are definitely in very limestoney/caliche soil but we don't have much water. The trees are mostly deep in the understory with just enough glimpse of the sun to ripen the few fruit which occur. A few of the newer sprouts are trying to take a stand on the north edge of this area and so far are tolerating the mid summer sun from morning until around 2 in the afternoon.

    The fruiting tree was there early on. However, after it (and a few others) was established we put in our septic drain field about 50 feet north and slightly uphill. This year I added some native and xeriscape plants just beyond the north edge of the tree cover where the cherry is found; so, as I try to get my new plants established, there may be some additional water seeping underground into the cherry "orchard" a bit downhill from the new plantings.

    These are just my observations about the escarpment cherry; thought I'd share. So, does anyone have recipes for these tart little cherries? I only have about two handfuls this year but i can dream.