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Cherries
(Prunus Cerasus)


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About 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.

Type

Cherry trees come in two very basic sorts: sour and sweet. Sour cherries are called that for a reason. While they are the runaway choice for making cherry pies, they are not much good for eating out of hand. 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 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.)

Pollination

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, but 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.)

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.

Size

A natural cherry tree can get rather large—40 feet tall and 15 or even 20 feet wide. Moreover, large trees like that take several 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.

Cold-Hardiness

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.

Ailments

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

There are two commonly grown sour-cherry types: Montmorency, which was long the only choice, and now Meteor, which is in most ways similar to Montmorency but is a little more cold-hardy (it needs 800 chill hourscompared to Montmorency’s 500); Meteor is naturally a smaller tree, growing even on its own rootstock to only about 10' or at most 12' in height (even without pruning). For areas with cold winters, the Meteor would seem the preferred sour-cherry type. (Note well that if you want to grow both sweet and sour cherries, a sour-cherry tree is perfectly well able to cross-pollinate a sweet-cherry tree.)

Sweet Cherries

White Gold cherries

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 frosts that are the 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.)

Rootstocks

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 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).


Growing Cherry Trees

They are treated much like other fruit trees. (But do note that cherry trees on dwarf rootstock can readily be grown in containers, sized in the 10- to 15-gallon range: a 15-gallon container can typically hold an 8' to 12' tree!) Rather than re-invent the wheel, we here refer you to a few sites with decent or better growing information:

(A “15-gallon” container is typically 15" to 16" wide at the top and 16" deep.)

More

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

Biology

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.

History

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.

Envoi

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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