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Bird cherry (bot. Prunus padus) is a deciduous tree or large shrub widespread in Europe and northern Asia. In Germany, the species is mainly found in the swamp and alluvial forests of Lower Saxony and Saxony, but is also often planted on embankments or in semi-natural orchards to stabilize the ground. However, the wild fruit, which is very popular with birds, is considered to be slightly poisonous, and the closely related late-flowering bird cherry (bot. Prunus serotina) is even dangerous.

Is the bird cherry poisonous?

The white blossoms of the bird cherry, also known as marsh cherry, which appear between April and May, attract numerous insects. The native wood is an important food tree, especially for various bee and fly species. The wood and bark of the bird cherry, on the other hand, contain toxic hydrocyanic acid glycosides, which decompose in contact with water to form hydrocyanic acid and bitter almond oil and therefore have a strong smell.
Since the woody parts of the plant taste very bitter, it is rarely bitten by wild animals. The seeds are also poisonous, which - similar to the kernels of the related apricot (bot. Prunus armeniaca) - also contain hydrocyanic acid and should therefore not be eaten. However, the bird cherry contains only small amounts of the toxins mentioned, so there is no need to worry about initial poisoning - especially since all parts of the plant taste bitter and the seeds are so large that accidental swallowing is rare.


The situation is different with the neophytic late-flowering or American bird cherry (bot. Prunus serotina), which contains significantly more toxins than the native bird cherry species. All parts of the plant - with the exception of the ripe pulp - contain the cyanogenic glycoside prunasin, which, in combination with water highly toxic hydrocyanic acid splits off.

The poison content in the seeds and in the bark is very high, which is why the consumption of poisonous parts of the plant and unripe fruits can lead to symptoms of poisoning - up to and including respiratory and cardiac arrest if very large quantities are consumed. However, this is considered unlikely, since all parts of the plant, including the ripe fruits, taste very sour to bitter - the latter are particularly noticeable due to an unpleasant aftertaste, even if they initially appear fruity and sweet.

How to distinguish between the two bird cherry species:

  • Prunus serotina flowers much later, between May and June
  • native species has soft, light green leaves
  • those of the American neophyte are dark green with a glossy surface
  • in addition, the leaf is hairy on the underside along the main vein

notice: In contrast to Prunus padus, which is a valuable insect and bird protection tree, Prunus serotina causes a number of problems in the native flora and is therefore combated. One of the main problems is that the vigorous plant, which spreads quickly in forests, prevents slower-growing deciduous trees such as oak, beech, etc. from growing and therefore inhibits their natural renewal.

children & animals

The common marsh cherry does not pose any particular dangers to children or pets. On the one hand, this is due to the generally low level of toxic components in the plant, but on the other hand, it is also due to the unpleasant taste of all parts of the plant. The bitter, sour aroma of even the ripe flesh of the fruit rarely tempts children and pets to put another flower or berry in their mouth or nibble on the bark of the tree after trying it once. For reasons of caution, parents should take the following protective measures, especially when staying in the great outdoors:

  • do not eat berries or other plant parts of unfamiliar plants
  • make this clear to the children
  • indicate the risk of confusion
  • carry an identification book with you on walks/hikes
  • pay special attention to young children


The flesh of the native bird cherry is edible provided the seed kernel, which is classified as poisonous, is carefully removed. Since the wild fruit is not particularly tasty when it is raw, it is traditionally eaten

  • marmalade or jam
  • jelly
  • juice
  • or liquor

processed. However, you should refrain from using the flowers or leaves because of the poison content, as well as from using the bark as a tea or infusion, as recommended by some "wild herb experts". With the exception of the ripe pulp, all parts of the plant, especially the seeds and bark of the marsh cherry, contain toxins.

notice: In earlier times, the bark was used in folk medicine, mainly in the form of an infusion that was supposed to help against diseases such as gout or rheumatism. Homeopathy still uses the bark extract to treat heart and stomach problems and headaches. However, corresponding effects could not be confirmed by scientific methods, so that you should resort to medicinal plants or medicines that have been proven to be effective if necessary.


Due to their size and low weight, small children and pets are more likely to become poisoned by the poisonous components of the bird cherry - for example, if the small child has nibbled a few berries. Symptoms of poisoning therefore occur more quickly than, for example, in adults, for whom the same is rather unlikely. The typical symptoms are very unspecific and can also be traced back to other diseases or poisoning by another plant (after the child has played in the garden and tried different plants there). Possible indications of bird cherry poisoning include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • increased salivation
  • Tremble
  • a headache
  • increased sweating
  • Dizziness (rarely to the point of fainting)

Please note that not all symptoms have to appear at the same time. Sometimes problems will show up with just one or two signs.

First aid

If your child or pet feels unwell after consuming bird cherry components and/or shows one or more of the symptoms listed, then you should act as follows:

  • drink a lot to dilute the poison in the body
  • Still water (non-carbonated) and tea are suitable
  • no milk!
  • do not induce vomiting
  • if you vomit, make sure you don't suffocate
  • Administer charcoal tablets (bind toxins)
  • Consult a pediatrician, family doctor or veterinarian

tip: It also makes sense for people to contact the poison control center. Poison Control Center phone numbers vary by city/county and state, so keep the correct number for your area handy.

notice: Please note that this article is by no means a substitute for a doctor's visit. There is no guarantee of the correctness of medical statements.
Detailed information on first aid in the event of poisoning and important information on the poison control centers can be found here.

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