Recorded folklore for either the wild cherry or bird cherry is surprisingly sparse, and it seems likely that some folklore was indiscriminately ascribed to either or both of these trees when encountered in the landscape. Folklore recorded in the north east of Scotland in 1889, referred to bird cherry trees as hackberry (elsewhere they are also known as hag berry) and warned against using the tree's wood for any purpose, as it was considered a witch's tree. An infusion made of the stalks of the berries was used medicinally to treat bronchitis and anaemia.
A tale recounted in an old English carol tells of how Joseph and the pregnant Mary were walking in a cherry orchard when Mary asked Joseph to pick her some cherries. However Joseph remarked unkindly that she should get whomever 'brought thee with child' to pick the cherries for her. The unborn Christ child then communicated with the cherry trees, asking them to lower their branches so that Mary could pick her own cherries, and Joseph was suitably repentant. In the former Czechoslovakia it was customary to cut cherry branches on the Feast of St Barbara on 4 December and bring these into the warmth of the house to have blossom at Christmas. However, the tree of course flowers naturally at or around Easter, especially if Easter is late, and in England, in the Chilterns, some of the abundant blossoms were used to decorate churches at Easter.
Wild cherry folklore has unusual associations with the cuckoo, whereby the bird has to eat three good meals of cherries before it may stop singing. Similarly, a children's oracular rhyme from Buckinghamshire says:
'Cuckoo, cherry tree,
Good bird tell me,
How many years before I die',
with the answer being the next number of cuckoo calls the singer heard.
The wild cherry is commonly known as gean, a name which shares its linguistic roots with guigne, a French word for cherry. In Scotland of old, it was known as cacothaich in Gaelic, though a more recent Gaelic name of uncertain origin, fhioghag (meaning fig tree), is also used. The gean is a direct ancestor of cultivated cherries, and its fruits can also be eaten and have a similar taste, though they are not so sweet and have less flesh around the stone. You have to be quick to beat the birds to an abundant crop following a good spring and summer, and they are often picked when they are still yellowy-red, before they fully ripen to a deeper reddish purple. Wild cherries can of course also be made into pies, wine or soup.
Gean and bird cherries were both used to flavour alcoholic drinks such as whisky or gin, and cherry brandy can easily be made by filling a bottle with wild cherries, adding sugar, topping up with brandy and leaving for a few months. The resin which leaks from the trunk was formerly used by children as chewing gum. It is recorded as a treatment for coughs, and when it was dissolved in wine, it was used to treat gall stones and kidney stones. The bark was used to make fabric dyes, ranging in colour from cream to tan, while a reddish-purple colour was derived from the roots.
Cherry wood is hard, fine-grained and used for turning, especially the large burls with unusual grains which can appear on the trunk. It is also used for making furniture, and its red-brown wood polishes up well to a deep, shiny brown colour. In some parts of the Highlands there were taboos against the use of the tree but none seemed widespread or to have persisted over the centuries. In a way, this may reflect the nature of these cherry trees, in that they were not long lived, nor grew anywhere in large quantities. Rather, they seemed to appear singly or in small groups, sometimes on the edge of woods, though in the Highlands they were often well away from the competition of other trees. The fact that they were briefly conspicuous in spring, through the beautifully vibrant displays of blossom on their branches, followed by drifts of fallen petals on the hillsides around them, gave gean and bird cherry a somewhat mysterious quality in Highland folklore, and to encounter one was considered auspicious and fateful.
Published: Caledonia Wild! Summer 2003
Last updated: 05 July 2012