Our Natural World: Pennsylvania’s Wild Cherry Kingdom
This slab shows the distinctive cherry grain; A year of aging has enriched the color of the log on the right.
Selling my mother’s hilltop property felt like a door closing behind me, and that door was made of black cherry.
Walking in the humid light of June, I passed the fox-orange body of a huge, splintered black cherry tree. Behind my steps on the woods road, a rushing sound startled me as a tree fell in the wet gloom of the 2018 summer. The door was closing.
I had come to know the tree well. I listened to the flying squirrels eating the tiny cherries in the moonlight and broke the shed branches for spring cleaning fires, smelling the cherry fragrance of winter-seasoned wood. Now this awareness was being uprooted.
That was then
Black cherry is a familiar part of life. Over the edge of an earlier windy hilltop, I played beside a big black cherry tree as a child. A giant specimen rooted from the side of a ridge crest by a hiking trail I had built. The big splintered one in June had stood downslope from a hilltop orchard. Independent of its high ground growth habit, black cherry is a secondary summit of Pennsylvania’s forest heritage.
White pine symbolized our forest 150 years ago, then eastern hemlock, until the logging-stripped landscape offered them no place to grow. Then, on those infertile hilltops, laid bare to the sun, black cherry sprung up everywhere and became the state’s arboreal symbol 50 years later. Whereas pine and hemlock rivaled the great Western conifers in forest aesthetics and found large-scale use, black cherry lived in kitchens and dining rooms.
Black cherry is by far the most valuable and recognized lumber in Pennsylvania. In terms of its MBF, or thousands of board feet, price, its $800 figure exceeds every other species. The vast stands in the Susquehanna basin are the centerpiece of this high-flown product.
Prime cherry lumber is distinguished by an even pink tone. The Susquehanna Basin is renowned for this grade, while other regions within the range of the tree produce wood laced with resinous streaks and numerous side branches that reduce value greatly. Its position in the northern reaches of black cherry range minimizes the growth of sapwood relative to the valuable heartwood.
This is now
The greatest stands of black cherry flourish in a triangle between the mountain enclaves of Germania and Ansonia, in the area of Cedar Mountain, and in the region between aptly named Cherry Springs and Denton Hill. Within those zones are showcase stands of the tree that give hikers the opportunity to study the ecology of the cherry forest or simply touch or shelter beneath them.
Along the Susquehannock Trail on the mountaintop about three miles behind Ole Bull State Park, one of these stands creates a kind of arboreal monument. There, among the hermit thrush song and hayscented fern, the columnar trunks attain such great heights that they provide an entirely new perspective on this common species of tree.
The most accessible of these showcase stands is situated at the northern gateway to the Susquehannock Trail, behind the Susquehannock State Forest headquarters building. Here, the Ridge Trail, the entrance ramp, if you will, to the Susquehannock, leads into a high-elevation grove. Park alongside the dirt road beside the office, walk past the maintenance facility, then continue straight onto a woods road that soon crosses a small creek. The trail begins to the right, ascending to the grove. It’s more of a short walk than a hike. The district office is located along Route 6 between Galeton and Coudersport.
This stand exhibits signs of sustainable timber harvest. Once black cherry reaches 80 years of age, its quality begins to deteriorate, making a harvest schedule an economic necessity. Our black cherry stands range from 80 to 120 years of age, dating to the end of the unrestricted logging era.
Certification by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international organization dedicated to responsible timber harvest, creates a global market for Pennsylvania cherry wood. This state was first in the nation to earn that certification, and the harvest parameters that define the certification enabled the state to avoid overharvest during a period of burgeoning prices 15 years ago.
In the extensive cherry forest between Cherry Springs and Ole Bull State Park, foresters have found a way to enhance our lumber supply by employing black cherry debris. In this territory, cherries share the high ground with sugar maples, which are plagued by acid rain. Sam Cook, service forester for the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, points out research showing that leaving the branches of downed cherries on the ground confers buffering protection from acid rain for up to 50 years.
Lou Irion, something of a dean of wild cherry and, with his wife Wanda, founder and co-owner of Irion Lumber in Wellsboro, shifted the focus of his company to cherry largely because of the superlative trees that selective cutting under the Forest Stewardship Council guidelines foster. The decline of ash and the limited supply of woods such as walnut point to a promising future for cherry despite a current dip in price. Mr. Irion authored an educational overlook of black cherry wood on the company website at irionlumber.com.
Purveyor of fine logs
Not a timbering company per se, Irion Lumber Company is a buyer of fine logs that go into custom products that range from tool handles to elegant furniture. Myron Yoder, Irion’s president, explains that the individual log yielding the final product is tracked by number throughout the entire process so that products such as tabletops feature identical grain among sections. Larger companies take diverse logs and lump them together for furniture production, losing track of the source log and compromising the integrity of the tabletop.
Black cherry not only sustains the Pennsylvania ethic of independent business practices but its resource-based identity. Roughly 70 million board feet, 1 foot X 1 foot X 1 inch—a fair-sized tree might yield 125 board feet—come out of our forests annually, with the price increasing around 400 percent over a period of 35 years.
On my wall, far from my mother’s hilltop, black cherry frames my Penn State degree. Offering my assurance to Lou Irion that the cherry price would rise again, I heard: “It’s too pretty not to.”
Bill Rozday, a Penn State graduate, writes frequently about the resource-richness of Pennsylvania.