Presidents’ Day always makes me think of George Washington. For a botanist, the old legend about young George’s chopping down a cherry tree is rather memorable. So, in honor of our first president, I present to you…a cherry tree.
All of the true cherry species belong to the genus Prunus, which is a member of the rose family. Our Mystery Plant is a relative of the common and widespread black cherry, which may be growing in your area. These two species are superficially similar, but very easy to tell apart. While black cherry is strictly a deciduous plant, our mystery plant is evergreen, its leaves elliptical or somewhat egg-shaped, and shiny green. The leaf margins are extremely variable, and may be smooth, or equipped with a number of usually small, jaggedy teeth, especially on sprouts. The leaf blades are a bit stiff and leathery, and if you crunch some up in your two hands and breathe in the aroma, you probably will recognize at least a slight, sweet cherry scent.
This species is usually a fairly small tree, and it occurs naturally in maritime forests along the coast, from North Carolina down to central Florida, and west to Texas. The thing is, this species is easily capable of growing well away from the coast, and it has now become naturalized in many parts of the Southeast outside its normal range. It is something of a weed, actually, often showing up in vacant lots and along fences, and seems to have spread from sites where it was cultivated.