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(Prunus Cerasus)

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About Cherries

Lapins cherries

There are several things a would-be cherry-tree grower needs to know about them. We will touch on those before we get to selecting types, because the optimum type for your home orchard depends on these matters. But we can quote Wikipedia: “Sweet cherry trees are labeled as being very delicate and finicky. They are not a popular choice for growing with hobby gardeners because they can be very time consuming.”


Cherry trees come in two very basic sorts: sour and sweet. Sour cherries were called that for a reason. While they are the runaway choice for making cherry pies and jams and cooked uses in general, they were not much good for eating out of hand. We say “were” because some newer cultivars are notably sweeter than the old standard types; they don’t quite match actual sweet cherries for sweetness, but are considered quite satisfactory for eating out of hand (which the older ones were and are not). So, which kind you want, sour or sweet, depends on how you typically use cherries. (Or maybe you want both pies and fresh desserts, in which case grow one tree of each sort.)

(Apparently The Powers That Be felt that “sour cherry” is not a sufficiently happy-face term, and so these are now marketed as “pie cherries” or “tart cherries”. What’s in a name? Money.)


Sour-cherry trees are all naturally self-fruitful, meaning that they do not require a second tree for pollination before they can set fruit. Most sweet-cherry trees do require a pollinator, though there are a few self-fruitful sweet types; if you’re only wanting one cherry tree and that a sweet type, be very sure you select a self-fruitful type. (Also be aware that even nominally self-fruitful types, sour or sweet, will usually produce better with a second type present for pollination.) Sky Nursery publishes a handy Cherry Pollination Chart. Note that pie-cherry trees can pollinate sweet-cherry trees (though apparently not vice-versa, but that doesn’t matter because pie-cherry trees are self-fertile).

Chill Factor

While a freeze can readily damage a cherry tree that is not in its winter dormant phase, cherry trees all require, to set fruit, a certain amount of exposure to cold temperatures. The exact requirement for a given variety is known as its “chill factor” requirement; if it gets much more or less than its winter requirement, it will not set fruit that year, and possibly not for a year or two after. For most cherry types, the chill-factor requirement runs from around 700 to around 1,000 hours a winter of exposure to temperatures between 32° and 45° F. There are, however, a number of “low-chill” types, whose requirements are only around 400 hours or even as litle as 200 in some few cases, making them suitable for mild-climate regions. You need to reckon—or, better, ask experienced growers (amateur or professional) in your area—what the typical chill factor is there, and choose varieties accordingly.


A natural cherry tree can get rather large—40 feet tall and 15 or even 20 feet wide. Moreover, large trees like that take many years before they start delivering any meaningful quantity of fruit. The approach most home growers take is to grow cherry trees that are grafted combinations: the fruiting part of the tree, what you see above ground, is called the “scion” and determines what kind of cherry you’re growing; the underground root system, aptly called the “rootstock” of the tree, determines the size (and vigor) of the tree. The scion is grafted onto a selected rootstock (typically by professionals in orchards) to make the total tree suited for your garden. We address rootstock choices farther below on this page.


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 a region like ours sweet cherries are well worth trying, but one has to understand that it’s something of a gamble. Cherry trees require not one but two consecutive winters of appropriate chill factors—like Goldilocks’ porridge, not too hot and not too cold—to set much fruit; get a severe but not tree-fatal winter, and you will have a long 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. In a dry region like ours, 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.)

Cherry Cultivars

Sour Cherries

Juliet cherry tree

For a long time, a single cultivar—Montmorency—utterly dominated the pie-cherry market for both commercial and home growers. But in recent years, a number of much more appealing types have been developed by an ongoing program at the University of Saskatchewan; in particular is the so-called “Romance” series (so called owing to the names given them), consisting of Romeo, Juliet, Cupid, Valentine, Crimson Passion, and Carmine Jewel. These are not only superior in eating quality (as pie-type cherries), they are hardy all the way down to Zone 2), and they are naturally significantly smaller than the huge, sweeping cherry trees of old (they can be pruned to a bush form in cooler climates). And of course, like all pie-cherry types, are self-pollinating, so one only needs a single tree.

Of that collection, between this and that and these and those, it looks to us like the variety Juliet (“Best for fresh eating, excellent flavour” they say) is the best selection (shown at the right). It grows to about 7 feet high and 6 feet wide at maturity, grows in an evenly rounded shape, ripens in early to mid-August, and can produce up to 25 pounds a season when mature. Note, though, that it can produce suckers up to 10 feet away (but in manageable numbers)—but note also that it can be grown in a container, as the image shows. The University actually publishes color charts for each of their cultivars so that you can determine optimal ripeness (scroll down that page to “Articles - 2017”).

Besides the “Romance” series, they have now released another, similar type, “D’Artagnan”; being similar to Juliet but a bit smaller, it especially lends itself to use in making a cherry-bush hedge.

Sweet Cherries

Dwarf Rainier cherry tree

To try to make cultivar choices from the myriad sweet-cherry types available, we sliced ruthlessly with the Zone-rating data. Remember that Zone-hardiness ratings are based on average lowest annual temperatures; but Mother Nature does not follow simple patterns. There will be occasional years when a sudden cold snap will take overnight lows well below the Zone annual average, possibly for more than one night. If you get an unseasonable cold snap when growing vegetables, most of what you lose is a season’s crop; if you lose a tree, you have lost rather more money (the cost of replacing it) and time and effort, plus however many years it takes a replacement to start meaningfully producing.

It thus behooves one, regardless of what maps say your Zone is, to go for the cold-hardiest cultivars available, for whatever insurance that may represent. Most sweet-cherry types are listed as hardy down to Zone 5, but a few are listed as cold-hardy down to Zone 4. We thus start by limiting ourselves to those Zone 4 types. But…descriptions of cultivars vary depending on the nursery: Bing cherries, for one example, are described by some sellers as hardy to Zone 4, but by others as only hardy to Zone 5. Our feeling is that pessimism should rule: if more than one or two reputable nurseries list a type as Zone 5, we ignore the ones who say Zone 4. Better safe than sorry.

That said, there still remain quite a few possibilities. Among them (this is not an exhaustive list) are: Rainier; Van; Lapins; Kristin; Stella; Black Gold; and White Gold. Of those, Rainier is said to be “one of the most cold hardy sweet cherries”; moreover, it is widely praised as one of the very best-tasting cherries around, commanding a premium price in the retail market. In short Rainier seems close to a no-brainer choice for one’s “lead” sweet cherry. We say “lead” because Rainier, like most sweet-cherry trees, requires a cross-pollinator to be fruitful. Among types typically so used are the Van and Lapins cultivars mentioned earlier in this paragraph, so we would choose one of those—it’s a close call, but likely the Lapins type (“The fruit of the Lapins cultivar is regarded as very high quality.”)


In past, both sweet and tart cherry growers relied on vigorous rootstocks which develop large (15' - 20') trees that take quite a few 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 commercial 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 3, 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—and 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. (See Sweet cherry rootstocks from Oregon State University for details.)

The advent of Gisela 3 rootstock may have changed that picture a bit. The Gisela site states that Gisela 6 (classed a “semi-dwarf” rootstock) produces “a tree that is 65% the size of Mazzard in the East and 90 to 95% the size of Mazzard in the West.” Of Gisela 3 (classed a fully dwarf rootstack), it says it “produces a tree 35 to 40% the size of Mazzard in the East and somewhat larger in the West.” In other words, in the East, Gisela 3 produces a tree about half the size that Gisela 6 does, and in the West an indeterminate ratio somewhere around half to two-thirds the size.

Only you can know what size tree you want. But basically it’s Gisela 6 for a fair-sized tree or Gisela 3 for a smaller tree; so far as we can tell from the literature, a cherry tree on Gisela 6 will grow at full maturity to about 13', but can readily be kept to 9' or so by prudent annual trimming; thus, one on Gisela 3 should grow to maybe 8' or a bit over, which is still not exactly a bush, but pruning would likely help here, too.

But in either case, the tree grown on that rootstock will require anchoring, as with, for example, dwarf apple trees: an 8-foot metal pole of 2" to 3" 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; others use a small length of garden hose around the tie cord to protect the tree trunk).

Growing Cherry Trees

They are treated much like other fruit trees. But do note that cherry trees on fully dwarf rootstock can readily be grown in containers, sized in 15-gallon or over range. (There is a discussion of container sizing at the Harvest to Table site.)

Rather than re-invent the wheel, we here refer you to a few sites with decent or better growing information:

Important! If you don’t protect your cherry trees from pests, you will get little if any fruit—and that protection starts as you plant the trees. Refer to the protection notes on the main “fruits” page of this site for details.


Relevant Links

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.)

Odds and Ends


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/Tart/Pie Cherry (P. cerasus), still 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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