Throughout a surprising amount of North America, dunes and other highly erosional habitats have a friend in the sand cherry (Prunus pumila). I first met this cherry on the shores of Lake Huron where it blankets dunes with its scrambling, prostrate branches.
Throughout North America, sand cherry can be found growing in dry, sandy areas. Its ability to grow in such places makes it an important soil stabilizer and dune builder. It sends down a deep root system that anchors sand. As the dune system grows, it sends out more and more branches, further stabilizing these relatively unstable habitats. This also begins the process of soil formation. The stability lends to the ability of other plants to take root. This in turn leads to the invasion of microbes and invertebrates that begin breaking down biological materials, thus forming the foundation of soil.
Mature sand cherries begin blooming in April and will continue doing so into June in cooler climates. The flowers are followed by small cherries that are relished by a variety of animals. Aside from food, its thick grown habit also provides ample shelter and breeding opportunities for a insects, birds, and mammals alike. Taken together, sand cherry is quite the ecosystem engineer. Because of its drought tolerance, sand cherry is gaining some popularity among habitat restoration practitioners as well as anyone looking for hardy yet beautiful landscape specimen. Individuals growing on more stable, less wind-swept ground will take on a more upright appearance. All in all this may be one of my favorite members of the Prunus genus.
Photo Credit: Joshua Mayer (http://tinyurl.com/znrh8e2)