Monday, October 8, 2012

Permaculture Plants: Cherry, Tart or Sour

The Tart or Sour Cherry should be required for every home.

Common Name: Tart Cherry, Sour Cherry
Scientific Name: Prunus cerasus
Family: Rosaceae

A bowl of Tart Cherries... life doesn't get much better!
The Tart Cherry (a.k.a. Sour Cherry) is closely related to the Sweet Cherry, but as the name implies, it is significantly tarter than its cousin. Tart Cherries can be eaten fresh when perfectly ripe, but are most widely used for baking and cooking. The fruit alone is enough reason to grow this small tree, and if space is an issue consider dwarfing varieties at only 3-6 foot (1-2 meter) tall "trees". Tart Cherries are beautiful in the Spring, provide nectar and pollen to beneficial insects, and its wood has a number of uses. It is significantly more hardy of cold, heat, drought, pests, and disease than the Sweet Cherry, and there are plenty of varieties to choose for your home or Forest Garden.
It is believed that the Tart Cherry (Prunus cerasus) was a wild cross between the European Dwarf/Mongolian Cherry (Prunus fruticosa) and the Sweet Cherry (Prunus avium) somewhere in what is now modern day Turkey. It was prized by the Greeks and Romans, the later who introduced it to Britain. The 'Kentish Red' Tart Cherry was the first Tart Cherry planted in North America by British colonists in Massachusetts. There have been many cultivars/varieties developed around the world, and it still remains popular today mainly for baking, cooking, and juicing.

Amarelle (left) and Morello (right) are the two classes of Tart Cherries
  • Tart Cherries flower later in the year than Sweet Cherries, so they are less susceptible to late frosts
  • Tart Cherries can tolerate more shade than Sweet Cherries
  • Tart Cherries are less susceptible to pests and disease than Sweet Cherries
  • Amarelle are Tart Cherries with lighter red fruit, light red juice, and light flesh
  • Morello are Tart Cherries with dark red fruits, dark red juice, and dark red flesh
  • Marasca cherries are a type of Morello Tart Cherry which were traditionally used to make Maraschino Liquer; modern Maraschino cherries are made with a number of cherry varieties which are bleached, dyed with red food coloring, and then soaked in sugar water and almond extract.
  • Kriek Lambic is a style of open (wild) fermented Belgian beer that uses Tart Cherries for flavoring, traditionally instead of hops
  • Common dwarfing rootstocks are Colt (12 feet/3.5 meters tall) and Gisela (6.5 feet/2 meters tall)

I love unexpected flavor combinations: Tart Cherries in Meatballs
recipe here on Healthy Jewish Cooking

A more traditional Tart Cherry Recipe
Croatian Sour Cherry Strudel Recipe (Fil za Strudlu s Tresnjama ili Visnjama)

Primary Uses:
  • Baking - pies, tarts, turnovers, etc.
  • Cooking - used in savory dishes commonly with meats
  • Preserves, jams, jellies, etc.
  • Juice - often combined with other sweeter fruit juices or sweeteners (sugar, honey, etc.)
  • Fresh eating – Many varieties can be eaten this way, but typically they are only eaten fresh when fully ripened on the tree. When not perfectly ripe... well, there is a reason they are named "tart".
  • Dried
  • Fruit Leather
  • Flavoring component to beers, wines, and liquers

Secondary Uses:
  • General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
  • Wildlife food source, especially birds (Summer)
  • Specimen plant (i.e. decorative)
  • Living Fence/Hedge plant
  • Larger varieties may be coppiced for wood used in woodworking, fuel, etc. (will delay fruit production for a few years after each coppicing)
  • Wood

Yield: 1-2 bushels/35-70 liters/50-100 lbs (22.5-45 kg) per tree
Harvesting: Summer (July-August). Pick when the fruit is ripe... when the fruit is in full color and the fruit stalk (stem connecting the fruit to the tree) separates easily from  the tree
Storage: Fresh Tart Cherries should be used within a few days. Tart Cherries typically freeze well.

Tart Cherries can be full sized or very dwarfed - will fit in any space.

Chill Requirement: 600-1,500 hours/units depending on the variety

Plant Type: Very Small to Medium Tree
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Tree Layer, Sub-Canopy (Understory) Layer, Shrub Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: Many varieties available.

Pollination: Self-Fertile
Flowering: Spring. April-June depending on the variety and USDA Zone where it is planted

Life Span:
Years to Begin Bearing: 4-5 years,
Years to Maximum Bearing: 10-20 years
Years of Useful Life: 15-25

Tart Cherry trees can be stand alone specimen trees or incorporated into a Forest Garden.
Size: Standard (full-sized trees): 15-30 feet (4.5-9 meters) tall and wide depending on the variety/cultivar, and most do not reach max height.
A variety of rootstocks are available that will produce Standard, Semi-Dwarfing (Semi-Vigorous), Dwarfing, and Bush types resulting in various sizes. Largest is probably the Kentish Red Cherry (Prunus cerasus caproniana) at 30 feet (9 meters) tall. Shortest is probably the Bush/Dwarf Sour Cherry (Prunus cerasus frutescens) at 3 feet (1 meter) tall.
Roots: Fibrous, may sucker
Growth Rate: Medium

Beautiful flowers that attract beneficial insects... perfect!

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates moderate shade (needs at least a few hours of direct sun per day)
Moisture: Medium soil moisture
pH: most species prefer fairly neutral soil (6.1 - 7.0)

Special Considerations for Growing:
  • Many edible cherries tolerate juglone (natural growth inhibitor produced by Black Walnut and its relatives). If not sure, then consider using other trees as a buffer between your walnuts and other plantings.
  • Consider netting to protect fruit crop from the birds.

Usually grafted.  Seeds need at least 13-16 weeks cold stratification for germination and can take up to 18 months to germinate. Cuttings can be taken from Early Spring through Summer. Suckers can be divided in dormancy, but only consider this if the tree is not grafted.

Minimal.  Prune out live wood for training as desired and dead or diseased wood in late Summer and Autumn - not when dormant.

Poisonous – Leaves and seeds contain a precursor to cyanide (large amounts need to be eaten for this to be toxic).


  1. Tree trimming can be time consuming. Check out tree pruning queens ASAP!

  2. I live in NE WI in USDA Z4b. I'm trying the U of Saskat. hybrid cvs. such as 'Carmine Jewel', 'Romeo', 'Juliet', and 'Crimson Passion' --hardy to -40 F. We'll see how they do here...

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