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Thickets of pin cherry saplings, burst into bloom in early spring to add unexpected beauty to the most mundane and neglected landscapes. These small trees sprout and thrive in full sun along highways; in abandoned pastures and edges of fields, logging sites and disturbed sites in forests where the trees have been blown down. This first generation of trees are called pioneer species because they prepare the way for the less sun tolerant but longer-lived trees that follow. This is the first phase in the process of forest succession.

The pioneer species (Prunus pensylvanica) are intolerant of shade, and when shaded out by taller hardwoods their rapid growth slows and they die back. Along with pin cherry, birches and poplars, white pine and red cedar grow in similar open sites that often have poor soil. The pioneer trees also help to enrich the soil by adding a layer of humus or duff to the topsoil as the tree leaves, needles, twigs, branches and eventually the tree trunks fall to the ground and rot. Underground, the root systems loosen compacted soil and the continuously sloughed off roots become compost in the soil. The roots also take up runoff water and help to stabilize soil, an important function in preventing soil erosion in disturbed sites. Pin cherry trees can survive in poor soils like the sandy soils common in NH because they tolerate drought surviving long dry spell without water. Since they grow along roads and highways, they apparently tolerate road salt too.

Pin Cherry State Champion
Odiorne State Park, Rye, NH (July 2017)
Circumference 134", Height 58'

But because they are very intolerant of shade, they only live 30 - 35 years. Huge pin cherry trees are unusual. To compensate for their short lives, they begin to flower and fruit at a very young age, so even small saplings can be loaded with pretty blossoms. With this early start, pin cherries produce an enormous amount of seed during their short lifetimes. Birds eat the juicy cherries and spread the pits that pass through their digestive tract as they are dropped to the ground under their perches. Bird cherry is another common name for the tree. The seed pits remain viable for many years – up to 50 to 100 years. This is longer than the life expectancy of the tree! This is why pin cherry is also called fire cherry. After a forest fire, the dormant cherry pits buried under years of accumulated forest floor litter and humus will sprout when light can again reach the forest floor; a unique and competitive survival strategy.

Cherry, Pin

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