Growing fruit in your own garden is always a thrill, but it does take some effort – more than just picking up a tree at random and planting it. On our site we give you lots of information on every variety, but sometimes the bigger picture is missing.
Here we are going to look at cherry trees, a popular fruit for sure, but one that takes some thought before planting in your garden. A big source of confusion is because there are two distinct types of cherry. The type you love to pop into your mouth is the sweet cherry. The one that makes the best pies and preserves, muffins and other baked goods, and a delicious dessert, hot or cold, just stewed with some sugar, is the sour cherry.
Don’t confuse the color of a cherry with it being sour or sweet. Although sour cherries can be both red and black, there are black sweet cherries too, as well as cherry-red ones, yellow ones and even white ones.
Choosing starts of course with what you want – fresh cherries or cherries to cook with? But each one also has special requirements, and after reading this you might change your mind which you want – or plant both.
The Sweet Cherry
Popular with just about everyone, sweet cherries are perfect for eating fresh or using in fruit salads. It is almost never used for baking – although you could – because it loses flavor when cooked, and can become bland and not so interesting, especially to adults, who usually favor more tang in their fruit desserts. Fresh, though, is another story!
Although garden cherries are particular varieties, their parent is the wild cherry, Prunus avium. Also called ‘bird cherry’, it occurred naturally from Britain through Europe into North Africa, Turkey and the Middle East. All those countries, especially Turkey, have a long tradition of growing and eating sweet cherries. In fact, cherry stones have been found in human settlements back 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, in the Bronze Age. By 800 BC they were being actively cultivated – and no doubt being selected for quality, sweetness and heavy crops.
In America, sweet cherries were brought to California by Spanish missionaries, before that state became part of the USA, and by the 1800s settlers were planting them in California, Washington state and Oregon.
If you think about it, the fact that sweet cherries were grown in Greece and California says a lot about the conditions this tree enjoys. Warmer climates, and drier weather during the ripening of the crop from mid-April to mid-June is needed, or the fruits will rot on the tree. If you are interested in growing sweet cherries, how close is your local climate to that?
Growing Sweet Cherries
If you want to grow a sweet cherry tree, the first thing to realize is that sweet cherry trees are rarely self-pollinating. So you usually need another variety to act as a pollinator. Fortunately most cherries pollinate most other varieties, but there are some exceptions, so check when you are buying – you will find details of this in our descriptions. The two trees should be grown no more than 20 feet apart, so side-by-side is best.
Up until about 50 years ago, cherry trees were big – 30 feet tall and wide or more – so with two you needed a lot of room. Fortunately since then we have dwarfing rootstocks, so you can expect a tree to grow around 15 feet tall and wide. They grow best in warm, sunny spots, with deep, rich soil that is generally moist, but not wet. You don’t want a dry soil while the fruit is developing, and since you do want dry weather at harvest time, it needs to be a soil that can store the spring rains for a long time. Good warm, sunny weather is needed to ripen the crop, so if you have uncertain springs, go for a later ripening variety, when the weather should be hotter.
The Sour Cherry
We don’t know for sure, but we can speculate about the natural origin of the sour cherry – Prunus cerasus. At the easter edges of the natural habitat of the sweet cherry is the country we today call Iran. There it met the Mongolian cherry, Prunus fruticosa. That bushy tree, growing to only 6 feet tall, tolerates drier conditions and colder weather than the sweet cherry. Through a fluke of nature these two plants combined their genes, not in the usual way, but by giving a full set (16 chromosomes) each, forming a tetraploid hybrid with 32 chromosomes. The remarkable event created a tree that was smaller than the sweet cherry, more cold resistant, with cherries that were full of flavor, but sour, not sweet. Soon they formed a stable population that early botanists described, and that way we got our sour cherries. Today, in Iran, they make them into jams, and also into syrups to drink in water, and even cook them with rice.
The first sour cherries came to America in 1670, with the French settlers who lived in New France until 1763. They had grown sour cherries a great deal – the famous (and simple) French dessert called clafoutis is best with sour cherries, and some of their varieties are still grown by us today – for example Queen Ann, which is actually a variety called ‘Napoleon’, from guess where!
Consider this – Michigan is the center of American sour cherry growing, while California is the center for sweet cherries. You can instantly see which type are suited for such very different climates. Sour cherries are also popular in the UK, where the traditional weather is rainy and cold in winter – making sour cherries much easier to grow that sweet ones.
Growing the Sour Cherry
Unlike sweet cherries, one of the most important differences with sour cherries is that most are self-pollinating – you only need one tree to harvest a full crop. The trees are also naturally smaller, so they fit into smaller gardens so easily. Mind you, with the use of dwarfing rootstocks for sweet cherries, that difference is not so important today.
These cherries ripen later, from mid-June to mid-July, so they follow most of the sweet varieties for harvesting. They all flower at much the same time, though, so some sour cherries will pollinate sweet cherry varieties. Check carefully though, as it isn’t a universal rule.
Sour cherries will grow in zone 4, while sweet ones need at least zone 5, so you can see how much more winter-hardy they are. Otherwise, they need similar conditions – plenty of sun, as much warmth as they can get, and deep, rich, moist soil that isn’t wet and boggy. In colder zones, to get the necessary sun and warmth to ripen them, and also for some winter protection, they are great for growing on a wall of your house, as an espalier – spread out on trellis, or attached to wires stretched across the wall. (Wires are much better than driving nails in all over the place).
So, Which Will It Be?
Now you have the details, you can make a decision as to which cherries are best for you. Of course, in many areas you can grow both, which is the best solution of all!