Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Bird Cherry (Prunus padus)

BIRD CHERRY (Prunus padus)
Family: Rosaceae
The Bird Cherry is a small to medium-sized tree. It grows in huge numbers in moist temperate woodlands throughout the world, including the British Isles (for distribution maps see Online Atlas ofthe British and Irish Flora; Houston Durrant and Caudullo 2016; Uusitalo 2004). Today, Bird Cherry regularly dominates the strips of woodland bordering streams and ditch-banks. It has a tendency to sucker, so often forms dense thickets and can invade pastures, albeit not as vigorously as Blackthorn (see separate entry on Blackthorn).
Bird Cherry tree. (Glen Urquhart, September 2006)
In its preferred streamside locations, Bird Cherry is easily mistaken for one of the sallows (broad-leaved willows, Salix spp.). This is the case especially in autumn when its soft, yellow senescing leaves are suffused with pinks, just as in some sallows. However, closer inspection reveals the characteristic trusses of small jet-black berries, which are unique amongst fruit bearing trees in Britain. In May and June Bird Cherry trees are instantly recognisable from the long, drooping racemes of 20-40 white, heavily scented flowers (Uusitalo 2004: 20-23).
Bird Cherry blossom.
(Hailsham, May 2011)

Fruit harvesting  
Harvesting Bird Cherry fruits by beating the trees with a forked stick has proved unsuccessful because in most instances they are too tenaciously attached to their short stalks to be detachable by this means (Hillman unpublished field notes). More vigorous beating succeeded merely in smashing the fruits on the tree. Collection by hand of individual fruits, or fruit trusses is more effective.
Bird Cherry fruits.
(near Alfriston, July 2007)

‘Poisonous fruits’ 
In his authoritative and comprehensive ‘Complete book of British Berries’ Lang lists Bird Cherry as ‘poisonous’ and describes the translucent green flesh of the fruits as having an “unpleasant foetid odour and a foul taste which dries the mouth” (Lang 1987: 108). Peoples’ perception of taste varies and some find the flavour of the ripe Bird Cherries rather pleasant (Hillman pers. comm.), albeit with a slight bitterness and an almond aroma indicative of the presence of the poisonous glycoside called amygdalin, which releases hydrogen cyanide (HCN) when the flesh is crushed (the Bird Cherry entry in Plants For A Future [PFAF] database) warns that any very bitter fruits or seeds should not be eaten as this is likely an indication of high toxicity). There is also a slight astringency indicating the presence of anti-digestive tannins. But, as discussed for Sloe, not only can the toxic component of amygdalin be largely eliminated, but the tannins can also be immobilized (see separate entry on Blackthorn, and specifically the section on how to make the fruits edible).
Bird Cherry ripe fruits – last few
still on tree. (Alfriston, July 2005)
The same toxins are present in the kernel of the Bird-Cherry fruit-pit (Uusitalo 2004: 39), just as they are in the kernels of the larger stone-fruits (‘drupes’) such as plums, bitter almonds and apricots, which, in recent times in Turkey and Syria, were removed from the pits and pounded to prepare a cyanide-rich ‘milk’ for eliminating head-lice (Hillman pers. comm.). Again, the kernels of all these stone-fruits can theoretically be detoxified in order to make use of the rich reserves of starch, oil and protein (Desser 2015: 28; Sharma et al. 2005). Indeed, most marzipan is today made from the detoxified kernels of apricots rather than almonds (known as persipan or parzipan[i]). However, the pits of Bird-Cherry are considered too small for the kernels to be worth extracting individually.

Bird Cherry stones. (Hailsham)
Detoxification of both flesh and kernel  
Anderson (2002) documents the detoxification methods used by the Taz, Nanai, Ulchi, Orok and Udegai peoples of the Amur Valley of the Russian Far East, who continued to live as hunter-gatherers well into the 1940s and who correspondingly retained knowledge of the wild species their ancestors ate and the processing methods they used to make unpalatable plant foods edible. Bird Cherry fruits were apparently one of their most heavily used wild foods. In her accounts of interviews with the families living in the Amur Valley she describes how they crushed the fruits in a single round of pounding with a wooden pestle and mortar until the stones were thoroughly fragmented. The mixture was spread on a flat surface, squeezed into thin flat cakes, which were then roasted until all trace of the smell of bitter almonds (the hydrogen cyanide, HCN) had disappeared. In the process, the cakes dried as a
Processing Bird Cherry – stone mortar, fruits, crushed fruits
and flat ‘cake’. (Rothiemurchas, September 2006)
gritty form of fruit leather that could be stored for the winter and right through into the spring. The fruit-leather cakes, or biscuits, could be eaten complete with all the fruit-stone fragments, which is a reflection of both the relative thinness of the wall of the stones in Bird Cherry and the comparatively restricted deposition of silica in the cell walls[ii].                        
Elpel reports the same procedure being applied to Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana; a species of Bird-cherry native to North America[iii]by indigenous peoples in Montana (Elpel 1998):  
You put the fresh berries on a metate stone and mash them up, pits and all, then dry them. The nut inside the pit has an almond-like aroma.... Like most of the other members of this genus, chokecherries contain a form of cyanide, but cyanide is very unstable, and is easily destroyed by heat, sunlight and oxygen. Mashing and drying the chokecherries renders them safe to eat. The pit shells are rather crunchy, but not nearly as obtrusive as you might think. …The dried mash I just use as trail mix. I find I can hand-pick 1 gallon of cherries per hour, which take another 40 minutes to mash with a rock.”

In preparing Chokecherries the same way, Thayer (2010) comments on how the broken pit-shells were rather a nuisance, but reports: “Throughout the winter I eat chokecherry leather as a snack …”.
Processing Bird Cherry – crushed fruits.
(Rothiemurchas, September 2006)

Prehistoric and historic usage
Prunus padus remains (e.g., fruits, fruitstones) have been found on sites in Europe dating from as early as the Late Mesolithic (c. 5000 cal. B.C.) and through to the Medieval periods (see entry under the synonym Padus avium in Kroll 1998). There is evidence for the use of Bird Cherry at the Late Mesolithic site of Hardinxveld-Giessendam de Bruin, in the Rhine-Meuse delta, Netherlands (Out and Verhoeven 2014) and later in the Neolithic, at the settlements of Nidau and Sutz Lattrigen on Lake Biel, Switzerland (Brombacher 1997) and the Dutch wetland site of Bergschenhoek, which is described as a fishing and fowling camp (Out 2012). Fruit stones are also recorded at the Eneolithic/Copper Age pile-dwelling site of Hočevarica on Ljubljana Moor, central Slovenia (dated to c. 3500 cal. B.C.; Jeraj et al. 2009). In the Medieval period, Prunus padus finds are listed in samples from the lakeshore settlement of Fonyód Bélatelep, on Lake Balaton, Hungary (7th-9th century A.D.; Gyulai et al. 1992) and in buried organic layers on a site in the south of Brno City, Czech Republic, dated to c. 1100 A.D (Rybníček et al. 1998). And, much further afield in Mongolia, fruitstones were discovered in the Medieval capital city of Qara Qorum, which was founded by Činggis Qayan (Ghenghis Khan) in the 13th century A.D. (Rösch et al. 2005). The authors note: “According to common opinion the ancient Mongolians ate mainly meat, sometimes even raw” (Rösch et al. 2005: 485), but given the long list of edible plants (many of which were imported) that were used in the city and in Ghenghis Khan’s palace it would seem that the inhabitants also had penchant for cereals, legumes, leafy vegetables, root foods and fruits, together with a variety of herbs and spices (Rösch et al. 2005: table 1).

There are many recent historical records for the use of Bird Cherry in Eurasia: for example, in Poland the fruits are listed as being eaten, and particularly by children as a snack (Łuczaj 2008); in Estonia the fruits, leaves and flowers had a variety of uses, including as spices for fermenting cucumbers (Kalle and Sõukand 2012); in Russia dried fruits were used as a tea substitute and were also ground to make flour for baking cakes, biscuits and pancakes (Shikov et al. 2017); and in Sweden the fruits were used as a flavouring in alcoholic drinks (brännvin; Svanberg 2012).

Other uses of Bird Cherry
The fruits of Bird Cherry have medicinal properties and are particularly high in antioxidants (Danno et al. 2018.).

Bird Cherry bark is used in dying and gives a dark green to grey colour[iv]. In his ‘Useful plants of Great Britain’, Pierpoint Johnson (1862) says of Bird Cherry: “the wood is valuable, being beautifully veined…. [And] being very tough and even in grain, it makes good handles for knives and carpenters’ tools” (see also Uusitalo 2004: 16, who lists many uses of the wood, e.g., for legs of chairs, musical instruments, fish poles, withes, etc.).

Anderson, S. 2002. Loss and change: a social history of wild plant use in Taz, Udege and Nanai communities of the Russian Far East. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University College London.

Brombacher, C. 1997. Archaeobotanical investigations of Late Neolithic lakeshore settlements (Lake Biel, Switzerland). Vegeation History and Archaeobotany 6: 167-186.

Danno, D., Mellano, M.G., De Biaggi, M., Riondato, I., Rakotoniaina, E.N. and Beccaro, G.L. 2018. New findings in Prunus padus L. fruits as a source of natural compounds: characterisation of metabolite profiles and preliminary evaluation of antioxidant activity. Molecules 23(4), 725; doi:10.3390/molecules23040725

Desser, A.M. 2015. Quantification of total cyanide content in kernels of stone fruits. Diplom-Ingenieurs, Fakultät für Technische Chemie, Technischen Universität Wien. [accessed: 17.04.18]

Elpel, T.J. 1998. Botany in a day - Thomas J. Elpel’s Herbal Field Guide to Plant
Families. Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School Publication, Pony, MT.

Gyulai, F., Hertelendi, E. and Szabó, I. 1992. Plant remains from the early medieval lakeshore settlement Fonyód Bélatelep (Lake Balaton, Hungary) with especial emphasis on the history of fruit cultivation in Pannonia. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 1:177-184.

Houston Durrant, T., Caudullo, G., 2016. Prunus padus in Europe: distribution, habitat, usage and threats. In: San-Miguel-Ayanz,J., de Rigo, D., Caudullo, G., Houston Durrant, T., Mauri, A. (eds.), European Atlas of Forest Tree Species. Publ. Off. EU, Luxembourg,
pp. e011e89+

Jeraj, M., Velušček, A. and Jacomet, S. 2009. The diet of Eneolithic (Copper Age, Fourth millennium cal B.C.) pile dwellers and the early formation of the cultural landscape south of the Alps: a case study from Slovenia. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 18: 75-89.

Johnson, P.C. 1862. The Useful Plants of Great Britain: A Treatise Upon the Principal Native
Vegetables Capable of Application as Food, Medicine or in the Arts and Manufactures. William Kent & Co., London.

Kalle, R. and Sõukand, R. 2012. Historical ethnobotanical review of wild edible plants of Estonia (1770s-1960s). Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae 81(4): 271-281.

Kroll, H. 1998. Literature on archaeological remains of cultivated plants (1996/1997). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 7: 23-56.

Kuhnlein, H.V. and Turner, N.J. 1991. Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples. Gordon and Breach Publishers, Netherlands. [Published online March 2009:]

Lang, D.C.  1987.  The complete book of British berries. Threshold Books, London.

Łuczaj, L. 2008. Archival data on wild plant foods used in Poland in 1948. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 4:4 https://doi:10.1186/1746-4269-4-4

Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. [accessed 12.04.18]

Out, W.A. 2012. What’s in a hearth? Seeds and fruits from the Neolithic fishing and fowling camp at Bergschenhoek, The Netherlands, in a wider context. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21: 201-214.

Out, W.A. and Verhoeven, K. 2014. Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic human impact at Dutch wetland sites: the case study of Hardinxveld-Giessendam De Bruin. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 23: 41-56.

Plants For A Future (PFAF). [accessed 15.04.18]

Rösch, M., Fischer, E. and Märkle, T. 2005. Human diet and land use in the time of the Khans—Archaeobotanical research in the capital of the Mongolian Empire, Qara Qorum, Mongolia. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 14: 485-492.

Sharma, P.C., Kamboj, P., Lal Kaushal, B.B. and Vaidya, D. 2005. Utilization of stone fruit kernels as a source of oil for edible and non-edible purposes. Acta Horticulturae 696: 551-557

Shikov. A.N., Tsitsilin, A.N., Pozharitskaya, O.N., Makarov, V.G. and Heinrich, M. 2017. Frontiers in Pharmacology 8:841 https//doi: 10.3389/fphar.2017.00841

Svanberg, I. 2012. The use of wild plants as food in pre-industrial Sweden. Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae 81(4): 317-327.

Thayer, S. 2010.  Nature’s garden: A guide to identifying, harvesting and preparing edible wild plants. Forager’s Harvest, Birchwood, WI.

Uusitalo, M. 2004. European bird cherry (Prunus padus L.) – a biodiverse wild plant for horticulture. Agrifood Research Reports 61. MTT Agrifood Research, Finland.

[ii] In experimenting with the processing of Bird Cherries gathered in Scotland, in order to pulverize the pits effectively it was found necessary to crush them on a flat rock using a hand-sized river-pebble; otherwise, the procedure followed was essentially the same (Hillman unpublished field notes).
[iii] [accessed: 17.04.18]; Kuhnlein and Turner (Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples, 1991) state that Chokeberries are the most widely used fruit among Canadian indigenous groups.

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