Mayday tree: Inadvertent Meaning to a Name?

In Scotland this was once known as the Witches’ Tree

The Mayday tree is a member of the rose family, in the same genus as cherries and plums. Another common name for it is European Bird Cherry. This name gives a clue as to its origin. According to a Canadian website, it grows in countries near the Arctic but is native throughout Europe where its berries attract birds. It has been introduced in the US and is most prevalent in Alaska and parts of the east, including Canada.

The tree is grown as an ornamental in the states. It is on more than one list of preferred trees for Colorado and is included as a good choice for the Front Range by the Colorado Tree Coalition.

There is no doubt that it is a gorgeous tree when it blooms. It also has a distinctive, spicy smell which wafts over large areas.

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Blooming Mayday Tree

The lovely scented flowers of this tree become dark colored “cherries,” also called

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Flower Clusters of the Mayday Tree

chokecherries, although the berries usually eaten in the US with that name are from the same genus but a different species. These are said to be very bitter, but may still be made into jams and jellies. One source says they can be used to make cherry brandy. Mention is made that Koreans eat the boiled leaves.

The various parts of the tree have been used for the usual medicinal remedies for internal problems such as gall stones; colds, and fevers. A more unusual mention is a concoction of an eyewash for conjunctivitis. The leaves and berries may be made into green dyes, as well as a reddish dye for fishing nets. Some sources say the lumber is prized in woodworking, but the Wood Database doesn’t list it.

Although this tree does not currently appear to pose a threat to the lower 48, it has become invasive in Alaska. It may cause difficulty in growing other shade trees as well as adversely affect the willow population. Moose often feed on willow trees, possibly decreasing a food source. The leaves, twigs, and drupes contain hydrogen cyanide and can be deadly for horses and other large animals. Recently this has caused problems for moose. Eaten in small amounts, humans normally will not be harmed by the hydrogen cyanide in the berry’s seeds.

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Mayday Tree bark

A photo of the trunk of the tree is included to help in identification.

D74 May Day Tree (Prunus padusis located on S. Bryan Drive between Oak Street and City Park Drive. It is very close to the street, across from the playground. This specimen was planted in 1993.

As indicated, this tree is called variously the May Day Tree, Mayday tree, European Bird Cherry, Cluster Cherry, and Hagberry. (The Sibley Guide to Trees.) At first I thought it was named the May Day tree as the flowers bloomed around the beginning of May. After reading of the danger to native trees in Alaska and the poisoning of large mammals, I wonder of it was inadvertently given a name mimicking a call for help!

 

 

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