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Mahaleb Cherry (Prunus mahaleb L.)


botanicalCerasus mahaleb
Mahlab, Mahleb
Mahlab, Mahlap
BulgarianДива череша, Махалебка
Diva cheresha, Mahalebka
CatalanCirerer de guineu, Cirerer de santa Llúcia
馬哈利櫻桃 [mǎ hā lì yīng táo], 圆叶樱桃 [yuán xié yīng táo]
Ma ha li ying tao, Yuan xie ying tao
CroatianKrušina, Rašeljka
CzechVišeň turecká, Mahalebka
DutchWeichsel, Weichselkers
EnglishEnglish cherry, Rock cherry, St. Lucie cherry
EstonianLõhnav kirsipuu
FarsiHabbul malan
FrenchCerisier de Sainte-Lucie
GermanSteinweichsel, Felsenkirsche, Türkische Weichsel, Türkische Kirsche
GreekΑγριοκερασιά, Μαχαλέπι, Μαχλέπι
Agriokerasia, Machalepi, Machlepi
HungarianSajmeggy, Törökmeggy
ItalianCiliegio canino, Pruno odoroso, Ciliegio di Santa Lucia
LithuanianKvapioji vyšnia
PolishWiśnia wonna, Antypka
PortugueseAbrunheiro-bravo, Esgana-cão
RomanianVișin turcescVişin turcesc
RussianВишня махалебка, Вишня магалебка, Вишня душистая, Антипка
Vishnya makhalebka, Vishnya magalebka, Vishnya dushistaya, Antipka
SerbianМагрива, Рашељка, Дивља вишња
Magriva, Rašeljka, Divlja višnja
SlovakČerešňa višňová mahalebková, Višňa turecká, Mahalebka
SpanishCerezo de Santa Lucía
SwahiliTunda la Mahaleb
TurkishMahlep, İdrisağacı
UkrainianВишня магалебська
Vyshnya mahalebska
Prunus mahaleb: Aromatic Chery tree in blossom
Flowering mahalab cherry tree
Prunus mahaleb: Mahaleb cherry flowers
Mahaleb cherry flowers
Prunus mahaleb: Mahlepi cherry stones
Mahaleb cherry kernels

There are many alter­native spelling of the Arabic name of this spice, محلب, in Latin letters, e. g., mahlab, mahalab, mahleb or mahaleb. In Turkish, the final con­sonant gets devoiced, yielding mahlep or mahalep. The Greek name μαχλέπι is variously transcribed into Latin letters as mahlepi, machlepi or makhlepi.

Used plant part

The soft interior of the fruit stone (kernel, embryo), which is beige to light ochre and drop-shaped (about 5 mm long); for a picture, see Norman.

Plant family

Rosaceae (rose family), subfamily Prunoidae.

Sensory quality

The embryo is soft-textured and tastes bitter and aromatic. After some time of chewing, a subtle flavour of tonka beans or bitter almond develops.

Main constituents

There is little information about the volatile constituents of mahaleb cherry kernels. The literature does not mention cyanogenic glycosides of amygdalin-type (see bitter almond), but some coumarin derivatives (coumarin, dihydrocoumarin, herniarin) have been found (J. Nat. Prod., 49, 721, 1986). A more recent study reports glycosidically bound 4-methoxyethyl-cinnamate (which is structurally related to coumarines) (J. Pharm. Sci., 59, 551, 2006). Moreover, coumarin has also been isolated from the dried bark, where they form the majority of the volatiles (Flavor and Fragrance Journal, 21, 306, 2005). In all probability, coumarines are the main flavour compounds of the kernels.

Prunus mahaleb: Lucie cherry flowers
Mahaleb cherry flowers

From the seeds, a fixed oil can be extracted (30%) that is dominated by oleic acid and linoleic acid. Furthermore, it contains some unusual conjugated fatty acids: 9,11,13-octadeca­trienoic acid (cis,trans,trans form: eleostearic acid, cis,trans,cis form: punica acid).


Mahaleb cherry grows abundantly in the Mediterranean, Southeast Europe and West Asia; it is, however, sometimes found in Central Europe, where it prefers warm and dry climate. Its culinary use is restricted to the South Eastern part of Europe (Greece, Armenia) and West Asia (Turkey, Lebanon, Syria). Main export country is Syria.

Mahaleb cherry trees, being rather robust and insensitive to diseases, are commonly used as stock in grafting cherries, especially in the USA.


The identical names in Arabic (al-mahlab [المحلب]) and Hebrew (mahaleb [מהלב]) hint at a common origin. Allegedly, both words derive from a common Semitic root ḤLB milk. Cf. the Hebrew noun halav [חלב] milk and the Arabic verb halaba [حلب] milk (take milk from an animal). I do not get the semantic connection between cherry and milk, unless it is the white colour of the flowers.

Prunus mahaleb: Mahaleb cherry flowers
Mahaleb cherry flowers
Prunus mahaleb: Mahaleb cherry flowers
Mahaleb cherry flowers

Literature men­tions another related plant name, galbanum, which refers to Ferula galbaniflua, a plant closely related to asafetida, and the latex obtained therefrom; here, the name is motivated by the milky plant juice, which when dried becomes an aromatic resin which has of old been used in incenses.

Possibly, some names for fenugreek also derive from the Semitic root ḤLB: Hebrew hilbeh [חילבה] and Arabic al-hulbah [الحلبه], which was borrowed by Spanish as alholva.

English cherry (Old English cyrstrēow cherry tree) has many relatives in European languages: German Kirsche, Italian ciliegio, Hungarian cseresznye, Estonian kirss, Maltese ċiras, Greek kerasi [κεράσι] and Armenian geras [կեռաս] can be traced back to Greek kerasos [κέρασος] cherry tree and kerasion [κεράσιον] cherry, which entered some of the languages mentioned above via Latin cerasus cherry tree. The word has been speculated to be of Semitic origin (allegedly Akkadian karšu, which I was unable to verify in a dictionary, and more recent Arabic karaz [كرز]), but sometimes in Indo–European origin is claimed, deriving from a postulated Proto-Indo–European root ḰERMUS cherry, with unclear relation to KER cornel.

Swedish vejksel (or the German term Weichsel sour cherry, morello) is related to Russian vishnya [вишня] cherry and goes back to Latin viscum and Greek ixos [ἰξός] mistletoe; sticky glue used by bird-catchers, because a resin from cherry trees was used to prepare lime-twigs; cf. the scientific term viscous syrupy. At the bottom lies the Proto-Indo–European root WIKS sticky plant, itself possibly a derivation of WEIS melt, dissolve (cf. Latin virus slime, poison).

I have no good explanation for the puzzling Polish name antypka and its Russian analogue antipka [антипка]. A wild guess would be to link it with the Turkish city of Gaziantep (formerly Antep).

For the botanical genus name Prunus, see almond.

Selected Links

Francesco Sirene: Spices & Herbs (Catalogue) World Merchants: Mahleb Herbie’s Spices: Mahlab Penzeys Spices: Mahlab The Spice House: Mahleb Le marché du Levant: Mahlab Spice Mysteries of a Wild Fruit: Mahlap (Ataman Hotel) Sorting Prunus names ( The Breads of Greece (Katherine R. Boulukos) Recipe: Chorak [չորեկ] ( Photo of Armenian Choreg (braided bread) ( Recipe: Armenian Choreg crackers [չորեկ] ( Recipe: Tsoureki [τσουρέκι] ( Recipe: Tsoureki [τσουρέκι] ( Recipe: Tsoureki [τσουρέκι] ( Recipe: Vasilopita [βασιλόπιτα] ( Recipe: Vassilopita [βασιλόπιτα] ( Recipe: Cypric Easter Cheese Pies (flaounes [φλαούνες]) ( Cypric Easter Recipes: Flaounes [Φλαούνες] and koulouria [κουλούρια] ( via Recipe: Muhallebi (Turkish Rice Pudding) ( Συνταγή: Φλαούνες ( via Recipe: Simit – Armenian Stick Cookie ( Recipe: Arabic Sweet Bread kakat [كعكات] ( Recipe: Arabic Pastry maamoul [معمول] with apricot filling ( Recipe Arabic Pastry ma'amoul [معمول] with date filling ( Some Mahaleb recipes

Prunus mahaleb: Mahlab cherries
Close-up to mahaleb cherries
Prunus mahaleb: Mahleb cherry fruits
Ripe Mahaleb Cherries
Prunus mahaleb: Ripe mahlap cherries
Ripe mahalab cherries
The fruits of the mahaleb cherry, thin-fleshed and small (barely 1 cm) as they are, yield this unusual spice, whose delicate fra­grance is, how­ever, domi­nated by a rather strong bitter­ness (see also zedoary on this topic). It is probably both the fra­grance and the bitter­ness which makes this spice uniquely suited for sweet foods, as long as it is carefully dosed.

As far as I know, mahaleb cherry spice is known only in the Eastern Medi­terra­nean and nearby Armenia; it is used almost ex­clusively for sweet breads and confec­tionery. Espe­cially in Greece, the kernels are loved for special­ties like tsoureki [τσουρέκι], a brioche-type braided sweet bread that is traditionally baked and eaten only at Easter time. Besides mahaleb kernels, it is flavoured with mastic, the resin from Pistacia lentiscus var. chia which is used only in Greek cuisine. In more recent years, vanilla-scented tsoureki has also become quite popular. Mahaleb is also used in Greece for yeast cakes or cookies (vasilopita [βασιλόπιτα]) and for a special type of Easter cheese pie or cheese cake on Cyprus (flaounes [φλαούνες]).

In West Asia, mahaleb kernels are best known in the cooking styles of Armenia and of the Levant. Armenian chorak (also written choreg or chorek [չորեկ]) is a sweet bread very similar to Greek tsoureki, although there is usually no mastic used for it. A variant of chorak is prepared as dry crackers. This product is enjoyed all over the year, particularly with a cup of strong coffee. An Arabic example is the crumbly shortbread pastry ma'amul [معمول] popular in Lebanon and Syria, which is usually stuffed with ground nuts or date paste.

In all these recipes, the mahaleb cherry kernels are used finely ground. Nevertheless, the spice should always be bought as whole kernels, because the powder spoils quickly due to its high lipid content. Even the whole kernels will, in my experience, go rancid after one or two years (unless kept in the freezer, perhaps).

Mahaleb cherry stones may be difficult to obtain in the West, being available only in Eastern Mediterranean specialty shops and sometimes from Greek, Turkish or Arabic vendors. As a reasonable substitute, I suggest a mixture of tonka beans with a hint of bitter almonds, which are, unfortunately, also not easy to get.

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