Prunus emarginata

Bitter cherry


The Basics

Taxonomy: Kingdom - Plantae (plants). Subkingdom - Tracheobionta (vascular plants). Superdivision - Spermatophyta (seed plants). Division - Magnoliophyta (flowering plants). Class - Magnoliopsida (dicotyledons). Subclass - Rosidae. Order - Rosales. Family - Rosaceae (rose). Genus - Prunus L. Species - Prunus emarginata (Douglas) Eaton

Ecology: Bitter cherry is a generally shade intolerant species of sparse woods, riparian sites, and open areas where there is often evidence of past disturbance. Bitter cherry is seral following clearcutting, broadcast burning, and cattle grazing; plants decline in vigor and numbers as the forest canopy closes. Bitter cherry is most often found in cool, moist foothill, montane, or canyon habitats throughout its range. It grows best on moist soils with good drainage, but also grows in semishaded areas and on dry, exposed hillsides.


Habit: Shrub, tree < 15 m, often in dense thickets, not thorny. Leaf: deciduous; petiole 3--12 mm; blade 15--60(80) mm, generally elliptic to obovate, crenate-serrate, base wedge-shaped, tip obtuse to rounded. Inflorescence: raceme, +- flat-topped; flowers (3)6--12; pedicels 3--12(18) mm. Flower: sepals glabrous, entire; petals 3--8 mm, white. Fruit: 7--14 mm, glabrous, red to purple; pulp +- fleshy.


Fire effects: Bitter cherry is top-killed or killed by severe fires. High-severity fires favor bitter cherry. Bitter cherry sprouts from the root crown following fire. Since root sprouting has been documented in bitter cherry it probably also sprouts from roots after fire. It establishes from buried seed or seed dispersed onto burned sites.


Seed production - Bitter cherry reproduces by seed. It is pollinated by insects and dispersed by birds and mammals. Seed can remain viable in soil and duff for many years and can be stored under dry conditions for up to 1 year. It is surrounded by a stony endocarp which may offer some resistance to germination but is permeable to moisture. Bitter cherry has embryo dormancy; an afterripening period in the presence of oxygen and moisture is necessary for adequate germination. Cold stratification at 5 deg C for 90 to 160 days increases germination.

Vegetative regeneration - Bitter cherry reproduces vegetatively by root crown and root sprouts.

Species Distribution


USDA Plants Database
USDA, NRCS. 2016. The PLANTS Database. National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.

USFS Plant Database
Habeck, R. J. 1992. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.

Flora of North America
Flora of North America Editorial Committee, eds. 1993+. Flora of North America North of Mexico. 19+ vols. New York and Oxford.

The Jepson Herbarium
The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California. B.G. Baldwin, D.H. Goldman, D.J. Keil, R. Patterson, T.J. Rosatti, and D.H. Wilken [editors]. 2012. 2nd edition, thoroughly revised and expanded. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture
Burke Museum. 2016 [Online]. University of Washington.
Photo credit: Susan McDougall 2004
Photo credit: Ben Legler 2005
Photo credit: G.D. Carr 2007