Native to eastern Europe and western Asia, the common cherry tree is part of the Rose family along with peaches, plums, apricots, and almonds. Prunus avium is botanic Latin for Wild Cherry and means “of or for the birds,” obviously named because of the favor that birds show for the succulent fruit.
The cherry is one of the world’s oldest cultivated fruits. Named after the ancient Turkish town of Cerasus, cherries date back to 300 BC when they were described by the Greek botanist Theophrastus. The cherry tree was a favorite of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Around 70 AD Pliny wrote that the cherry tree was present in Italy, Germany, England, and France. Roman General Lucullus is said to have committed suicide when he believed he was running out of cherries.
Cherries were brought to America by early settlers in the 1600s. The French brought their favorite variety and planted cherry pits along the Saint Lawrence River and down into the Great Lakes area, and French settlers enjoyed cherry trees as part of the gardens in Detroit, Vincennes, and other midwestern colonies. Eventually the new species brought by Europeans were cross-bred with a species of cherry already in America.
During the mid-nineteenth century, a Presbyterian missionary named Peter Dougherty planted the first cherry orchard in northern Michigan, and it flourished. Upon seeing its success, other farmers in the area planted their own orchards. It was in 1893 that the first commercial tart cherry orchards were planted in Michigan, near the site of Dougherty’s first plantings; and a few years later, the tart cherry industry was firmly established, soon surpassing the success of other crops. The first cherry-processing facility, the Traverse City Canning Company, was built just south of Traverse City, Michigan.
In 1847, Henderson Lewelling planted an orchard in Oregon, using nursery stock that he oxcarted from Iowa. His orchard became successful and grew into Lewelling Farms with a commercial production start of their sweet cherries during the 1870s and ’80s. This is where the Lambert cherry began. Their Bing cherry was named after one of Lewelling’s Chinese workmen.
Among the varieties of sweet cherries grown today, the most popular is the Bing, a large red cherry with purple-red flesh and a burgundy, almost black skin when fully ripe. Lambert is a smaller, heart-shaped version of the Bing, and is second in popularity. Other sweet, dark-skinned varieties include the Black Tartarian, Black Republican, Schmidt, and Windsor. Lighter varieties include the yellow rose-blushed Rainier and the Napoleon or Royal Ann, which is typically canned or made into maraschino cherries.
The Rainier cherry started by crossbreeding the Bing and Van varieties at the Washington State University Research Station in Prosser, Washington, about 50 miles from Yakima. Together, the Bing, Lambert, and Rainier varieties account for more than 95 percent of northwestern sweet cherry production.
Maraschino cherries originated in Yugoslavia and northern Italy, where a local cherry called the Marasca was marinated in a liqueur made from the fruit and leaves of the cherry tree. The Maraschino was imported to the United States in the 1890s as a delicacy for fine restaurants. U.S. cherry processors began their own version of the maraschino cherry in 1896, using the domestic Royal Ann cherry with a combination of almond oil, neroli oil, and vanilla extract. By 1920, the American maraschino cherry became preferred over the imported.
Sour cherries grown in the United States include the Montmorency, Early Richmond, and English Morello. They are smaller and softer than sweet cherries, usually too tart to be eaten fresh. They make splendid pie fillings and sauces.
Today, cherries are grown in most parts of the world with Europe being the leader in commercial production. The U.S. has an annual sweet cherry crop of 156,730 tons, 85 percent of which comes from Washington, Oregon, and California. Our annual sour cherry crop is about 100,000 tons, 77 percent grown in Michigan. Utah (cherry is Utah’s state fruit), Wisconsin, New York, and Pennsylvania also grow commercial cherries.
The “Cherry Capital of the World” is Traverse City, Michigan, where a National Cherry Festival is held every year. This year it will be held from July 2-9.
Kane, Pennsylvania, is the Black Cherry Capital of the World.
The world’s heaviest cherry was grown by Gerardo Maggipinto (Italy) and weighed 0.76 oz)on June 21, 2003.
Cherry Marketing Institute, click here.
Stemilt Growers of Wenatchee, WA, click here.