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(Apparently The Powers That Be feel that "sour cherry" is not a sufficiently slappy-happy term, and so these are now marketed as "pie cherries" or "tart cherries". What's in a name? Money.)
WSU lists one sour-cherry type, Montmorency, which seems the consensus choice for sour cherries (and it makes a fine cross-pollinator for sweet cherries, if you need one). We wouldn't suggest growing these unless you like to make a lot of cherry pies.
Unlike much tree fruit, many sweet-cherry types are self-fertile. Unless you are a tremendous cherry fan, or have a very large household, chances are that one tree's production will suffice for you; if so, be sure to select a self-fertile type.
Also as with other tree fruit, we look for as much cold-hardiness as we can get, to maximize survival chances during that once-a-decade (or whatever) really deep winter. Let's be honest: we, in our frost pocket, are probably rather marginal for sweet cherries (sour cherries are somewhat hardier). It is our feeling that in this region sweet cherries are well worth trying, but you have to understand that it's something of a gamble. Cherry trees require not one but two consecutive reasonable (not killer cold) winters to set much fruit; get a severe but not tree-fatal winter, and you will have a wait before you can again get fruit. That also means one needs to apply sound overwintering processes (discussed farther below) fastidiously.
The chief problem specific to cherries (other than winter cold) is what is called "cracking", a splitting of the skin that results from uneven growth, which, in turn, is usually from an uneven supply of water, meaning irregular rainfall. Here in the dry interior, where home growers typically hand-water or drip-irrigate, crack-resistance is not such a critical element in a cultivar's qualities. (But knowing how much water to deliver is important.)
Here are some of (perhaps most of, when true availability is considered) the cultivars that are self-fruitful; unless otherwise noted, nominal hardiness is Zone 5. Some of these notes are from growers, so take the flavor descriptions with a grain of salt. Note that the Bing cherry type is--owing to its ubiquity, not necessarily its quality--more or less the standard for evaluating taste and ripening time; on the whole, cherries are not a fall-freeze problem, virtually all types, including "late-season", ripening well before August. It is late-spring forsts that can be a problem for the early blossoms, so late-blossoming (not necessarily late-fruiting) cultivars are what is wanted.
After much review of the various sources of that information, it seemed to us that the first choice is between Black Gold (red Bing type) or White Gold (yellow Rainier type). We incline to Black Gold, as it is late in blooming, which helps avoid late-frost damage in spring (but is ready to pick--and eat!--in June). White Gold may, however, be marginally more winter-hardy, and we are on the margin for overwintering sweet-cherry trees. (None of that is to say that there are no other possible good choices, but those seem to us all round the best.)
In past, both sweet and tart cherry growers relied on vigorous rootstocks which develop large (15' - 20') trees that take several years to reach full production potential. More recently, dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstocks (such as the Gisela series, Colt, and the Krymsk series) have become available; those rootstocks allow growers to produce smaller trees at a higher density. Also, most size-controlling rootstocks are precocious, meaning they start bearing a deal earlier in the life of the tree, which is A Good Thing. Owing to all these factors, the older, once-standard rootstocks--Mazzard, and especially Mahaleb--are falling out of favor now.
(It appears that Gisela 5, 6, and 12 are the only ones currently available in the U.S.)
Studies have shown that despite the early bloom associated with Gisela rootstock, yields through several years of the test (8, to be exact) were equal or greater than on Mahaleb, and much greater than on Mazzard. The yield per tree differences between dwarfing and standard rootstock became ever less as the trees matured. But arguably most critical for our purposes, tree mortality over a cold winter was severe except on the G-series rootstock; G6 was best (zero mortality). All in all, it looks like Gisela 6 is the preferred choice for cherry rootstock in our region. But the tree grown on it will require anchoring, as with, for example, dwarf apple trees: an 8-foot metal pole of perhaps 2" diameter pounded at least 2' into the ground, and about 2' to the windward of the tree trunk (put the support pole in at the time you plant the tree, and be sure to tie it on with something that is neither thin nor hard--many people use cut up nylon stockings--and that is not looped around the trunk).
They are treated much like other fruit trees. Rather than re-invent the wheel, we here refer you to a few sites with decent or better growing information:
Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:
(And don't forget that we have listings of nurseries on our suppliers page.)
The cherry belongs to that familiar fruiting family, the Rosaceae, its genus being Prunus--placing it with almonds, peaches, plums, apricots, and bird cherries. The subgenus, Cerasus, is distinguished by having its flowers in small corymbs of several together (not singly, nor in racemes), and by having a smooth fruit with only a weak (or no) groove along one side.
Eating cherries derive primarily from two species, the Wild Cherry (P. avium), source of the Sweet Cherry, to which most cherry cultivars belong, and the Sour Cherry (P. cerasus), used mainly for cooking and jam making.
The subgenus is native to the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with two species in North America, three in Europe, and the remainder in Asia. The word "cherry" comes from the French word cerise, which comes in turn from the Latin words cerasum and Cerasus (the classical name of the modern city of Giresun in Turkey).
Cherries were known and prized even in antiquity, in both Europe and Asia, where their history goes back some six thousand years.
Traverse City, Michigan, the self-styled "Cherry Capitol of the World, hosts an annual National Cherry Festival; besides such jollities as a cherry-pit spitting contest and the inevitable pie-eating contest, they have baked some of the world's largest cherry pies, the latest, in 1987, having been 17½ feet in diameter, weighing in at 28,350 pounds. Yum. Yum. You can visit The Unofficial National Cherry Home Page for more information.
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