We’ve all seen the breathtaking pink blooms of the Kwanzan, Yoshino and other cultivars of ornamental cherries. They make great small shade trees and specimen plants. Blooming season is a bit brief, but they’re pretty dramatic for a couple weeks.
Edible cherry cultivars can fit well in your landscape too. They have an attractive mass of flowers and also yield tasty fruit. Two major types are common and both have desirable qualities.
Sweet cherries (Prunus avium) are usually eaten fresh, are often larger and often require a different cultivar for cross-pollination. Some cultivars don’t. Bing is a common type often found in stores. It needs a pollinator, but Stella, Black Gold and North Star do not. Many people think sweet cherries are more versatile, but this is not true.
Some people cook with sweet cherries. Pies and other creations are darker and usually mushier. Make sure to check the recipe or you might concoct something much sweeter than you had in mind.
Sour cherry cultivars (Prunus cerasus) are self-fruitful and are definitely the choice for pies, juice and jellies. Color will be bright red. They are a little tart for fresh eating, but they’re good in a salad where a little tartness is acceptable. They can also pollinate sweet cherry cultivars if they flower at the same time, but they usually bloom later. Using another sweet cherry cultivar will yield better results.
Wild black cherries are very common around here. Some folks say that wild black cherries will pollinate cultivated varieties too, but I’ve read conflicting information which makes me skeptical. These wild cousins are tasty in their own right, but they’re small and birds usually beat you to them.
Cherries grow best in well drained slightly acid soils. When drainage is less than ideal they are more susceptible to root and stem diseases. Sweet and sour cherries both have similar growth requirements, but sour cherries are more winter hardy.
When it comes to insects, Japanese beetles love cherries, the foliage that is. They don’t bother fruit, but defoliation greatly affects fruit yields. Eastern tent caterpillars ravage black cherry, but they don’t seem to attack cultivated cherries as much. If you just have a few trees you can usually control them by physically removing the webbing when you see it.
As with apples, cherries are available in dwarf, semi-dwarf and standard sizes. Make sure you pay attention to this when you pick out your trees or they might not fit your landscaping. In general, sweet cherry trees are usually taller.
One might think that birds would cause more damage to sweet cherry trees. Unfortunately, this is not true. Birds like both of them. Robins and cedar waxwings appear to like the sweet ones best. Chickadees and sparrows usually eat more sour ones. Most other birds don’t seem to care.
As far as nutrition goes, sour cherries are much higher in anti-inflammatories than sweet types are. Research indicates they might have several uses medicinally. As a result, a plethora of supplements are available on the internet and in health food stores.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.