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First tree I met yesterday turned out to be a black cherry–a friend I remembered from working at National Tool and Manufacturing. We had one on the fence border of the factory. Black cherries, originally a tree of the deep forest thickets, loves sunlight, and is what they call a pioneer tree: it will grow with black walnuts and other such sun loving trees on the borders of farms, or old orchards, and on the outer areas of thickets. It’s a late bloomer (flowering as late as June) and its bark which has been described as resembling thick charred corn flakes, and the rather tortuous path of its branches makes it look like a tree struck down by lightning–burnt to a crisp.

In winter location and bark is the best way to identify it. No farmer would purposefully plant it as a windbreak so the young trees with their smooth more typically cherry tree like bark are seldom seen. What you’re likely to see is a tree of a hundred years or more. There’s a reason farmers don’t always like them: their leaves contain the chief agent used in making cyanide (as do the seeds) and they can poison cattle. The reason you find them on the borders of farms is because, in their younger days, their bark is very similar to normal cherries or other desirable windbreak trees. They sometimes grow too thick to be fully cut down. The outer trees remain. Because they are a pioneer, they’ll also grow with Beech and other trees that are the first to move into a burned area of woods.

What I like best about black cherries is how ugly they are, how fully without life or merit they seem until flowering in June. They look charred and their branches go willy-nilly in search of the light. Sometimes they have blisters and boils and large humps. When they do leaf and flower their fragrance rivals the smell of lilacs and Linden trees. I used to go over to the black cherry at lunch time when it flowered and take in the scent, try to carry it back with me into the plant. Even had a poem about it, about Esau and his brothers.

At any rate, the twigs smell of almonds if broken off. The fruits are tart but retain some sweetness and they are now finding out these sour cherries are super foods, containing the highest levels of anti-oxidants. This is one tree I would definitely tell my kids not to swallow the seeds of (no one wants a kid to take in cyanide, no matter how low the dosage). Birds do, and that’s often how black cherry travels–by the process of “Scarification” (carried in the shit of birds).

So this is a tree that looks like shit, and whose seeds are carried in shit and yet its timber is the cherry wood used for making the most expensive cabinets, its fruits contain super amounts of antioxidants. The flowers have an amazing fragrance. It’s a very poetic tree insofar as its value, like the value of poetry, is not readily available. To see it in winter is to see a, charred, dead looking thing with equally dead vines and wild grape leaves still clinging to it. My kind of tree!

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Joe Weil is a lecturer at SUNY Binghamton and has several collections of poetry out there, A Portable Winter (with an introduction by Harvey Pekar), The Pursuit of Happiness, What Remains, Painting the Christmas Trees, and, most recently, The Plumber's Apprentice, published by New York Quarterly Press. He makes his home in Vestal, New York.

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