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Prunus pumila



photo by Troy Weldy, NY Natural Heritage Program

Taylor, Jane. 2006. Prunus pumila. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [].


Cerasus pumila (L.) Michx. subsp. besseyi (Bailey) W.A. Weber
P. besseyi Bailey
P. pumila L. subsp. besseyi (Bailey) Nizhnikev
   = Prunus pumila L. var. besseyi (Bailey) Gleason

Prunus depressa Pursh
   = Prunus pumila L. var. depressa (Pursh) Gleason

Cerasus pumila (L.) Michx.
    = Prunus pumila [10,13,43]


western sandcherry
eastern sandcherry
Great Lakes sandcherry

The scientific name of sandcherry is Prunus pumila L. (Rosaceae). Some systematists recognize 3 varieties of sandcherry [10,13,43].

Prunus pumila L. var. besseyi (Bailey) Gleason, western sandcherry
Prunus pumila L. var. depressa (Pursh) Gleason, eastern sandcherry
Prunus pumila L. var. pumila, Great Lakes sandcherry

Varieties are referred to by their common names in this review.



Sandcherry is state listed as threatened in Arkansas, and Tennessee. Eastern sand cherry is state listed as threatened in Massachusetts and New York. Great Lakes sandcherry is listed as endangered in New York and presumed extirpated in Ohio [80].


SPECIES: Prunus pumila
sandcherry is widely distributed across the northern half of the United States and eastern Canada. It occurs from Quebec and Newfoundland south to Tennessee and Arkansas and west to Utah, Montana, and Saskatchewan [10,43]. Plants Database provides a distribution map of sandcherry and its varieties.

Varieties: Western sandcherry occurs from Ontario south to Arkansas and west to Utah, Montana, and Saskatchewan. Eastern sandcherry occurs from Quebec and Newfoundland south to Tennessee and west to Ontario. Great Lakes sandcherry occurs from Ontario south to Pennsylvania and west to Iowa and Minnesota [43,80].

FRES10 White-red-jack pine
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES38 Plains grasslands
FRES39 Prairie

STATES/PROVINCES: (key to state/province abbreviations)



8 Northern Rocky Mountains
9 Middle Rocky Mountains
10 Wyoming Basin
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont
14 Great Plains
15 Black Hills Uplift
16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands

K016 Eastern ponderosa forest
K017 Black Hills pine forest
K056 Wheatgrass-needlegrass shrubsteppe
K064 Grama-needlegrass-wheatgrass
K066 Wheatgrass-needlegrass
K067 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass
K069 Bluestem-grama prairie
K074 Bluestem prairie
K075 Nebraska Sandhills prairie
K095 Great Lakes pine forest

1 Jack pine
14 Northern pin oak
15 Red pine
22 White pine-hemlock
237 Interior ponderosa pine

310 Needle-and-thread-blue grama
601 Bluestem prairie
602 Bluestem-prairie sandreed
603 Prairie sandreed-needlegrass
604 Bluestem-grama prairie
606 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass
607 Wheatgrass-needlegrass
608 Wheatgrass-grama-needlegrass
609 Wheatgrass-grama

Sandcherry most commonly occurs on dry sites in grass-dominated communities, but it may also flourish in the shrub layer of some forest cover types. Publications that discuss plant communities in which sandcherry naturally occurs are listed below. The list is neither restrictive nor all inclusive.

United States

IN: KS: MI: MN: NB: ND: NE: SD: WI: Great Lake States:




SPECIES: Prunus pumila


Photos courtesy of Univ. of WI-Stevens Pt.

                                        Kenneth J. Sytsma

Hugh U. Iltis

This description provides characteristics that may be relevant to fire ecology, and is not meant for identification. Several florae provide keys for identifying sandcherry (e.g., [29,71,73,87]).

Sandcherry is a native, diffusely-branched shrub that grows from 1.5 to 9.1 feet (0.5-3.0 m) in height. The shrub may be decumbent or prostrate when growing on dunes or other wind-blown sites [10,73]. The leaves are generally oblanceolate and 0.4 to 0.8 inch (10-20 mm) wide. The perfect flowers occur in umbel-like clusters of 2 to 4. The fruit is a one-seeded drupe 0.4 to 0.6 inch (10-15 mm) in diameter. The seed is a flattened stone 0.3 inch (7-8 mm) in diameter [10,29,73]. Sandcherry has a spreading root system that grows primarily in the mineral soil layer >9.8 inches (25 cm) deep with some roots penetrating to a depth of 8 to 12 feet (2.6-4.0 m) [77,91]. Sandcherry is rhizomatous; rhizomes are uniformly abundant in the shallow and deeper soil layers [92].

There is some evidence that sandcherry may be allelopathic.  In field and greenhouse studies, extracts from sandcherry leaves completely prevented the germination of jack pine seedlings and also inhibited seedling growth [11,55,65].


Sandcherry regenerates by both seeds and sprouts [22,54,57].

Breeding system: Sandcherry is monoecious and self-fertile [30,73].

Pollination: Sandcherry is pollinated by insects [10,30].

Seed production: Sandcherry starts producing seed at 2 to 3 years of age. An average of 17 pounds (7.6 kg) of seed can be recovered from 100 pounds (45 kg) of  fruit yielding 1,500 to 2,965 seeds per pound (3,300-6523/kg) [30,42,53].

Seed dispersal: Sandcherry seeds are primarily spread by birds and small mammals that eat the fruit [10,30].

Seed banking: Whittle and others [91] found no evidence of seed banking by sandcherry in a jack pine ecosystem in Ontario. Additional information on the seed banking of sand cherry is lacking.

Germination: Sandcherry has been described as being "extremely dormant". It requires moist cold stratification before germination will occur [36]. Greenhouse studies have found that the best germination occurs after 100 days of wet chilling at 41 oF (5 oC) or 120 days at 33 oF (1 oC) [30,53].

Seedling establishment/growth: Although there is good information on the artificial cultivation of sandcherry seedlings, detailed information on natural seedling development is limited. Olson [54] reported that seedling invasion of sandcherry occurs on new dunes of southern Lake Michigan. Plummer [57] described sandcherry as having a "moderate seed spread". However, Whittle and others [92] reported that no seedling establishment occurred within the first 4 years following a prescribed burn in a mixed jack-red-white pine forest in Ontario.

Artificial cultivation of sandcherry seedlings is discussed in Value for Rehabilitation of Disturbed Sites.

Asexual regeneration: Sandcherry reproduces vegetatively by sprouting from the roots and rhizomes [32,54,92].

Sandcherry typically grows on sandy, gravelly, and rocky soils, dunes, beaches, and outwash plains. Sites are typically dry and excessively drained [10,71,72,82]. The species will grow on calcareous, saline, or serpentine soils [10], and will tolerate a lower soil ph of  4.0 [83]. Western sandcherry is rated as winter hardy to -40 oF (-40 oC) [41].

Information on the elevational ranges of sandcherry is not available for all areas in which it occurs. The following table summarizes reported elevational ranges of sand cherry.

Area Elevation
CO 3,500 to 6,500 feet (1,050-1,900 m) [33]
Adirondacks 1,040 feet (320 m) [46]
Great Lake States 650 to 1,300 feet (200-400 m)
ON 660 to 1,300 feet (200-400 m) [7]

Sandcherry is usually found on open habitats with little shade from trees or other shrubs [10]. Although it does occur in many different forested communities, the specific sites are often along edges of openings or in stands where canopy closure has not occurred [7,20,39,69].

Sandcherry is considered a dune building species on the sand dunes of  Lake Michigan. Its deep root network helps to stabilize sand, allowing for the invasion of other plant species and colonization by "soil building" invertebrates such as ants [10,54]. Sandcherry is most abundant on dunes 55 years old or less, and decreases in abundance as dunes age [16,17,27,49].

Sandcherry is a deciduous shrub with a typical winter dormancy. Flowering occurs from April to June, and fruits ripen from late July to September [10,32]. Flowers open with the leaves or when leaves are about half extended [29,53]. Sandcherry starts producing fruit in the 2nd or 3rd year of growth [32,83].


SPECIES: Prunus pumila
Fire adaptations: Reestablishment of sandcherry primarily occurs from sprouting [6,92]. Although not documented in the literature, sandcherry could presumably colonize burned areas when off-site seed is transported on-site by birds or mammals.

Fire regimes: Sandcherry occurs in plant communities and ecosystems with a wide range of historic fire frequencies. In the prairie and grassland communities, fires were relatively frequent with intervals ranging from <10 years to <35 years [56]. The fire intervals in the forest ecosystems were highly variable. In interior ponderosa pine and red pine communities, for example, fires were typically frequent low severity surface fires [2,14]. Conversely, red-white pine and jack pine communities experienced a mixed-severity regime with low to moderate severity at frequent intervals and stand-replacing fires over longer intervals [15]. As of this writing (2006), fire ecology studies are lacking for sandcherry. The following table provides fire return intervals for plant communities and ecosystems where sandcherry occurs. Find fire regime information for the plant communities in which this species may occur by entering the species name in the FEIS home page under "Find Fire Regimes".

Community or ecosystem Dominant species Fire return interval range (years)
bluestem prairie Andropogon gerardii var. gerardii-Schizachyrium scoparium <10 [44,56]
Nebraska sandhills prairie Andropogon gerardii var. paucipilus-Schizachyrium scoparium <10 [56]
plains grasslands Bouteloua spp. <35 [56,94]
blue grama-needle-and-thread grass-western wheatgrass Bouteloua gracilis-Hesperostipa comata-Pascopyrum smithii <35 [56,67,94]
wheatgrass plains grasslands Pascopyrum smithii <5-47+ [56,63,94]
jack pine Pinus banksiana <35 to 200 [15,19]
interior ponderosa pine* Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum 2-30 [2,3,48]
red pine (Great Lakes region) Pinus resinosa 3-18 (x=3-10) [14,26]
red-white pine* (Great Lakes region) Pinus resinosa-P. strobus 3-200 [15,35,50]
eastern white pine-eastern hemlock Pinus strobus-Tsuga canadensis 35-200
northern pin oak Quercus ellipsoidalis <35 [85]
little bluestem-grama prairie Schizachyrium scoparium-Bouteloua spp. <35 [56]
*fire return interval varies widely; trends in variation are noted in the species review

Rhizomatous shrub, rhizome in soil
Geophyte, growing points deep in soil
Secondary colonizer (on-site or off-site seed sources)


SPECIES: Prunus pumila
Moderate- or low-severity fires can kill the above ground stems and roots of sandcherry [6]. Rhizomes located in the deeper soils layers, >10 inches (>25 cm), are insulated from the heat, and may survive even high-severity fires. However, rhizomes and roots in the upper soil layer are more susceptible to heat injury and may be killed by moderate- or high-severity fires [92].

No additional information is available on this topic.

Sandcherry sprouts from rhizomes and roots following fire [91], and has been observed to sprout within the same year following a spring burn [6]. Reestablishment of  sandcherry after fire may also include seeds brought to the site by birds and mammals, but information on seedling recruitment of sandcherry following fire is lacking.

Spring burns were conducted annually on a bluestem prairie in southwestern Minnesota. Fire severities were generally considered to be low to moderate. Western sandcherry sprouted well on all plots and maintained a similar percent cover on all plots over the 5-year sampling period. There was an initial late-season increase in percent cover of western sandcherry in burn years, but cover returned to prefire levels by the following spring [6].

A summer burn was conducted in a jack-white-red pine stand in Ontario, and vegetation sampling was done 4 years after the burn. Sandcherry cover was not significantly different (p<0.05) when averaged across burned versus unburned plots. Sandcherry regeneration occurred exclusively from sprouts, not from seed [92].

In the jack pine barrens of Wisconsin, vegetation sampling found that frequent, repeated fires reduced sandcherry frequency by as much as 25% when compared to unburned sites [84].

Information on sandcherry and fire management is lacking. Further research is needed.


SPECIES: Prunus pumila
Sandcherry provides fruits and cover for a variety of birds and other small animals [58]. White-tailed deer in Michigan lightly browse sandcherry [40]. Sharp-tailed grouse in the Nebraska sandhills feed on sandcherry fruits in the summer [61]. Rodents reportedly feed heavily on sandcherry twigs [25]. Black-tailed jackrabbits in Kansas are reported to "vigorously attack" sandcherry twigs in the winter after snowfall [66].

Palatability/nutritional value: Sandcherry is reported to be a good quality forage for cattle, domestic sheep, deer, and pronghorn [75].

Cover value: Sandcherry provides good brood habitat for sharp-tailed grouse in Wisconsin jack pine barrens [31]. In the jack pine barrens of northern Michigan, the shrub provides nesting and fledgling cover for Kirtland's warbler [51,60].

Western sandcherry has been recommended for revegetation plantings in the Rocky Mountain and Intermountain west along road sides or other bare areas [25,58,86]. It is listed as being high in value for restoration of disturbed sites for its soil stabilizing characteristics [52]. Vogel [83] recommended sandcherry for use in revegetation of coal minespoils in the eastern United States primarily because of its tolerance of acidic soils.

Sandcherry was first cultivated in the United States in 1756 [30]. It can be readily propagated from seeds and stem and root cuttings. Root cuttings should be collected in the winter, and stem cuttings taken in late spring or early summer. Seed can be collected in late summer or fall when fruits ripen, and all pulp should be removed before sowing or storing [53]. Seeds should undergo a moist cold scarification for at least 100 days and not be allowed to dry out before planting. Plant the seeds 2 to 3 inches (5.1-7.6 cm) apart and about 1 to 2 inches (2.5-5.1 cm) deep [30,32].

The extensive root system and drought hardiness of sandcherry has made it a desirable shrub for erosion control and windbreak plantings throughout the Midwest [53]. Better performance in these planting can be achieved with fertilization [79]. For windbreak plantings, a 4-foot (1.2m) spacing is recommended [53].

Sandcherry provides good dwarfing rootstock for peaches, apricots and plums [18]. Sandcherry, primarily western sandcherry, has been used to create hybrids with peach, apricot and plum. The resulting cultivars are generally quite winter hardy and bloom later in the spring which results in less spring freeze damage [62,88]. Hybrids of peach and sandcherry are largely sterile, but hybrids of Japanese plum and sandcherry are highly fertile [88].

The purple sandcherry (Prunus × cistena), a cross between sandcherry and cherry plum (P. cerasifera), is a popular ornamental shrub desired for its colorful purple foliage [10].

The fruit of sandcherry can be eaten raw or cooked or dried for later use.  The fruit can also be used to make jam, jelly or syrup [10].

Plantings of sandcherry can be heavily damaged by rodent feeding, and fencing may be required to protect the plants in the first few years after planting. Older plants can recover from occasional feeding damage by sprouting [25].

Sandcherry is classified as a grazing decreaser and is easily eliminated under abusive grazing [75].

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