Not to be confused with : Bird's-Foot, Bird's-Foot-Trefoil Bird's-eye Primrose, Bird's-Nest Orchid nor with
Bird-in-the-Bush [plants with similar names]
Very similar to
Rum Cherry (Prunus serotina) but that has leaves which are glossy (matte on Bird Cherry), with indistinct veins (distinct on Bird Cherry) and have rounded teeth directed outwards (curved pointed teeth directed forward on Bird Cherry).
Rum Cherry also has hairs along the back of part of the mid-rib of the leaves (absent on Bird Cherry).
Some similarities to :
Cherry Laurel (but that has upright flower panicles) and to Portugal Laurel (but that has thinner and longer flower panicles that are always sloping downwards and which do not droop half-way along, but rather seem to make an effort to turn slightly upwards near the tip instead).
Uniquely identifiable characteristics
Distinguishing Feature :
TWO CYANOGENIC GLYCOSIDES
The tree has poisonous black berries that are rather sharp to the taste. The leaves, fruit, seeds (within the fruit) and other parts of the plant contain two toxic cyanogenic glycosides,
Amygdalin and some Prunasin, which are glycosidic derivatives of α-hydroxynitriles. They release hydrocyanic acid, HCN, on hydrolysis within the stomach.
It will be seen that the two are identical apart from Amygdalin possessing one more glucose unit. Both have the same modus operandii, in being completely harmless until hydrolysed within the stomach whereupon poisonous hydrocyanic acid is released. The cyanide preferrentially replacing the oxygen in haemoglobin such that the sufferer dies from lack of oxygen, particularly in the brain.
In more detail, the enzyme
Amygdalin β-glucosidase acts on
Amygdalin to produce Prunasin and
D-glucose. The Prunasin is then acted upon by another enzyme Prunasin β-Prunasin to produce another unit of D-glucose and the aglycone Mandelonitrile, which in turn is broken down by the enzyme Mandelonitrile Lyase into Hydrogen Cyanide and Benzaldehyde. It is the hydrogen cyanide which is the much more potent toxin, although benzaldehyde itself is not benign once in the mammalian body.
Mandelonitrile itself (an aglycone) does not occur in Bird Cherry, only its two glycosides, Prunasin and Amygdalin.