A medium-sized, fast-growing forest tree growing to a height of 50–80 ft (15–24 m). Leaves are 2–5 in (5–13 cm) long, ovate-lanceolate in shape, with finely toothed margins. Fall leaf color is yellow to red. Flowers are small, white and 5-petalled, in racemes 4–6 in (10–15 cm) long which contain several dozen flowers. The flowers give rise to reddish-black “berries” (drupes) fed on by birds, 5–10 mm (1⁄4–3⁄8 in) in diameter.
For about its first decade the bark of a black cherry tree is thin, smooth, and banded, resembling a birch. A mature tree has very broken, dark grey to black bark. The leaves are long and shiny, resembling a sourwood’s. An almond-like odor is released when a young twig is scratched and held close to the nose, revealing minute amounts of cyanide compounds produced and stored by the plant as a defense mechanism against herbivores.