Wild Cherries: Gean and Bird Cherry (Prunus avium and Prunus padus, Fhioghag in Gaelic)
Scotland has two wild cherries, neither of them very well recognised. They are both reasonably common in the Borders, especially in new plantings, although ancient populations of bird cherry hang on in remote cleuchs (deep gullies) showing that it is a true native. The evidence for gean is less clear but it probably is also native.
Cherries are best spotted when they are in flower, which is usually in May or early June. If you see a tall but many-stemmed bush with long, thin sprays of little, white, almond-smelling flowers growing on a woodland edge, it will be a bird cherry. It’s so pretty it looks like a garden escape. The flowers of the gean are larger, much more like those of cultivated cherries, or even resembling plum blossom. Both tend to be out before many trees have come into leaf, so are eye-catching. The gean actually produces flowers before its leaves unfurl and the bird cherry is quite the reverse. Its pale green leaves are often some of the first to burst their buds. They provide an early April glimpse of the glories of spring to come and their flowers follow a few weeks later.
The English poet, A E Houseman, called the gean ‘the loveliest of trees’ and the whole tree is elegant. The bark is shining, often with a reddish colour and the stem straight, with regular side branches. If these are pruned early, the stems make good timber that is valued very much by makers of musical instruments and craft furniture. Gean is seldom included in commercial planting, possibly because it suckers so freely, but is popular for new woodlands. Bird cherry also suckers but appears to do so by ‘walking’. Philip and Myrtle Ashmole have observed them sending out downwards tending branches that touch the ground and take root. About 30 years ago many ‘wild’ cherries were imported from Eastern Europe. In late summer they produce tell-tale fruit, far larger than the little red or yellow cherries from native trees. There are some good examples on the far side of St Mary’s Loch: lovely to eat in season but definitely not quite right for this environment.
In August, bird cherries have many little black fruit strung along those flower-stems. Like the larger cherries of the gean, they are much appreciated by birds. Both fruits can also be used very successfully to flavour gin, so you don’t have to wait until sloes are ripe to make that form of hedgerow treat!
A second chance to spot geans from afar is in autumn when the leaves turn a brilliant crimson. The bird cherry does not manage more than a medium yellow for its autumn show but do spot and appreciate the red fire of its cousin.
BFT has included bird cherry in all of its sites and, more recently, has planted gean too. At Carrifran its inclusion was a subject of much debate but it is a pleasure to have some representatives of this attractive species, especially in the ‘Paddock’ part of the lower valley which is less wild and has the slightly richer soils that will make it flourish.