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A Bowl of Cherries

By Audrey Stallsmith

prunus cerasus

Life is just a bowl of cherries.
Don't take it serious; it's too mysterious. . .
"Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" by Lew Brown

If life were always as sweetly succulent as a bowl of cherries, we would probably hear considerably fewer complaints about it! I am a fruit fanatic and cherries are my favorite. The briefness of the season during which the fresh red drupes are affordable adds to their desirability.

Some believe cherry to derive from karaza, a Sanskrit term loosely translated as "What juice; what flavor!" Others contend the fruit was name after Cerasus, a town in Turkey, while yet another faction holds that it springs from the Greek kerasos or "horn." The latter would seem unlikely except that Gerard, in his Herball, refers to certain cherries as being "of the colour of Jet, or burnished horne."

The cherry is supposed to have originated in the Orient and gradually spread west, perhaps with the help of seed-dropping birds. A blossoming branch of this particular fruit tree is the quintessential symbol of spring in Japan. The cherry spoke of destiny, not only to the Samurai who embellished their swords with its image, but also to "happy couples" who pledged their troths with tea brewed from its blossoms.

White cherry blossoms stand for "deception" in the Language of Flowers, perhaps a reference to George Washington's legendary refusal to lie! The tree itself stands, somewhat mysteriously, for "good education."

This fruit was brought to America in the 1600's. Prunus avium--the sweet or "bird's" cherry--grows mainly on the west coast, while prunus cerasus--the sour type--is most extensively cultivated in Michigan, New York, and Wisconsin. The wild prunus virginiana or chokecherry is also popular for jellies.

I'm not sure whether its common name refers to the fact that its excessively sour fruits will make you gasp or to the possibility that wilted leaves from its fallen branches can kill unwary livestock who forage on them. Almost all cherries contain a certain amount of hydrocyanic acid (cyanide) in their leaves, bark, and seeds, as is indicated by that bark's "bitter almond" scent.

Prunus serotina (wild black cherry) is the most dangerous. So, although the inner bark of serotina has been used in cold remedies and as an antidote to food poisoning, I would let the experts handle the making of those medications!

Maraschino cherries were originally made from wild black marasca cherries, fermented with their own crushed pits to add an almond flavor. Today, Royal Annes and almond oil generally serve as substitutes.

John Heinerman contends that "nothing works better for gout than either raw sweet cherries (15 per day), cherry juice concentrate (1 tbsp. three times daily), or else a tea made of the stems." He adds that "these remedies also work well for arthritis."

Gerard reports that the French used to gather the "darke bloudy" fruits "with their stalkes, and hang them up in their houses in bunches or handfulls against Winter, which the Physitions do give unto their patients in hot and burning fevers, being first steeped in a little warme water, that causeth them to swell and plumpe as full and fresh as whey they did grow upon the tree." ("I'm gong to guess that it was the cherries, rather than the patients which were plumped!)

Come to think of it, most of those bowls mentioned above include a few rotten and/or not fully ripe (and thus bitter) cherries. So comparing them to life may not be so far off after all. Your own happiness or lack of it will probably depend on whether you choose to recall the bad fruits or the good ones!

Prunus cerasus image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden