Sour Cherry (Prunus cerasus)

20180612_163849Yes, these cherries are sour.  No, you don’t want to eat them fresh.  Yes, you still want to grow them in your garden.

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*A handy growing summary chart is at the end of the article.*

20190328_163010dtcfgSour cherries are THE cherry to use for making an honest-to-goodness cherry pie.  And while the pie is a really tasty treat, it is not the only thing that you can make with these cherries.  I already have four recipes, including the pie, that use these cherries and I’m working on more (try the ice cream, Greek “spoon sweet”, and Greek liquor.  UPDATE: click here for the ever expanding offerings of recipes that use these cherries!).  Even though they are sour, they taste absolutely divine when put into the proper recipe.

Thankfully, growing sour cherry trees is pretty easy.  They are tolerant of a wide range of soils, they are self-fertile so you don’t need another tree for cross-pollination, and there are several varieties available that are adapted to a wide range of climates.  Sour cherry trees are also on the smaller side, topping out around 20 feet, with dwarf and semi-dwarf trees being as small as 6 feet.

20190328_163026serdcfgWhen selecting a sour cherry tree for your garden, be sure to check on the number of chill-hours that varietal requires.  Chill-hours are the cumulative number of hours your area dips below 45 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter time while the tree is dormant.  If you live in a milder winter climate, you will want to select a tree with a low chill-hour requirement.  If your tree needs a higher number of chill-hours than your location receives, it will not be able to successfully produce fruit, so it is important to know before you put it in the ground!  Thankfully, there are many that do not have a high hour requirement so you can grow sour cherries, even in zone 9!

20180517_160746Another bonus is that these trees produce an abundance of lovely blossoms each spring.  This is a good thing, because those blossoms will be your fruit if all goes well.  The flowers are a fluffy, white and similar in shape and size as those on sweet cherry trees.  The abundance of flowers also means you’ll be in for a prolific harvest.  Young trees won’t bear as much fruit at first, but after the first few years you’ll be able to gather quite a bit of cherries.  So you’ll not only get a pretty tree that feeds the local pollinators, but yourself, as well!

The final color of your sour cherries will depend on what type you have.  My tree is a Morello, and these aren’t quite ready, yet!  

As always, there are pests and diseases that can impact your tree.  Ours has remained in good condition so far, but I’ve said that about other plants in my garden only to blink and have something decide to die on me.  Many of the insect pests can be dealt with by giving your tree a blast from the hose, but this will knock down any flowers or immature fruit, too.  Bacterial and fungal diseases can affect any part of the tree so it is important to find a tree grown on resistant root-stock, as well as to grow your trees in uncrowded spaces.  There are many treatments for pests and disease that are less harsh for your garden (and for you and your family) than the typical pesticides, so check labels carefully before you start to spray.  Many pesticides will kill indiscriminately, including the beneficial organisms you want to keep.

Our tree is only a few years old in this picture, but already is producing an abundant crop.  It is also not at its mature height, which could be as tall as 20 feet.

Larger critters will also be attracted to the fruit on your tree, despite their sour flavor.  Birds will give a peck here and there to test things out, but none of our local feathered visitors have given much attention to the cherries.  However, squirrels are another story!  I came home one day a few years ago to realize that my tree looked funny, and the reason why was because every last cherry had been stripped from the tree!  They had clearly been plucked, not pecked, and I later found several pits at the base of another tree where a squirrel had been hanging out for a while.  Darned thing!

Any pruning you decide to do should be aimed at keeping the tree thinned as needed, and to keep limbs higher up from the ground.  Limbs that droop low can have bacterial or fungal spores splashed onto them from sprinklers or rain water.  Sour cherry trees don’t always have dense growth, so thinning is not needed as frequently.  If you do need to prune, be sure to wait until the leaves have all dropped for the winter, however it is best to do so before temperatures start to warm up in spring.

Plant Summary:

  • Perennial
  • Deciduous
  • Height: depends on variety, anywhere from 6-20 feet
  • Width: depends on variety, anywhere from 6-15 feet
  • Sun: full sun
  • Water: regularly, but do not let soil get overly soaked
  • Soil pH: neutral to slightly acidic
  • Soil type: amend heavy clay or loose sandy soil
  • Key nutrients: fertilize as you would for other fruit trees
  • Planting time: plant as bare root tree in spring, or in late summer to early fall before dropping leaves to allow the tree to get established
  • Zones: 3-9, depending on variety

9 thoughts on “Sour Cherry (Prunus cerasus)

  1. The cherries that grew in the orchards of the Santa Clara Valley, especially in Sunnyvale, were all sweet cherries. Just like apricots were used in every form imaginable by those of us who lived around Los Gatos and Campbell, sweet cherries were used in every form imaginable by those around Sunnyvale. When I was a kid, I believed that all pies were make with sweet cherries. The pies were quite bland. Weirdly though, a few sour and tart cherries were used as pollinators, so there were a few of them around. Somehow, no one remembers them. Supposedly, there were even a few orchards of tart cherries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there is a resurgence of interest in a lot of the old varieties of food plants these days. A lot of older people remember them and younger ones are now asking about them. I’ve been seeing more things like this pop up at the grocery store, too, but in fresh or fresh frozen form instead of canned.

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      1. I noticed it with a few items like rhubarb and quince, but have not seen tart cherries or sour oranges yet. I sort of wonder what those who get the quince do with them. I don’t know of anyone who knows how to cook with them anymore. I got a copy of the quince tree I grew up with, but it is nothing fancy.

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