Many of the old family farms in our area have heirloom varieties of big fruit trees. When the weather is just right, they bear enormous amounts of fruit and the harvest can stock pantries and freezers to maximum capacity. Late spring is cherry picking time!

About cherries: Sweet (Prunus avian) and sour (Prunus cerasus) do not cross-pollinate with one another. Most sweet cherries need a pollinator, and bloom and bear fruit early in the spring that makes them subject to frost damage. Most sour cherries are self-fertile and bloom a little later than the sweet varieties.

One cup of raw unpitted sweet cherries equals: 87 calories; 22g carbs; 3g fiber; 1g protein; and contains vitamins A & C; and iron & calcium. [1]

Both varieties are prone to rain-cracking (similar to tomato cracking) if they receive too much moisture before harvest, although sour cherries are a little more resistant. Since sweet cherries bear sooner, the fruit is more susceptible to damage from a rainy season, subsequently they are grown primarily in the West (commercially) which has dyer spring seasons. When cherries split open, they can very quickly develop brown rot, gray mold, and diseases rendering them inedible.

Birds know exactly when the cherries are ripe, and can strip a tree of healthy fruit in a matter of hours! I hope that you can see why a sweet cherry harvest is such a rushed opportunity in our Mid-Atlantic region!

Our region: The typography of the Appalachian Mountains creates pockets of varying weather climates within short distances. Our neighbors down the road can have frost when we have none. The weather formations can split when it reaches the mountains causing one side of a ridge to receive rain while the other side gets nothing. Therefore, it is a seldom occurrence when all these cherry trees ripen at the same time. We normally have two to six weeks between the harvests of following cherry tree varieties.

Royal Anne, a Sea Captain's Widow, & Maraschino Liqueur

Royal Anne cherry liqueur and maraschino cherriesThe first leg of our race was to harvest from one of my favorite trees, a massive century-old Royal Anne, or Napoleon, cherry (similar to Rainier). This cherry is classified as a white variety due to its beige-to-yellow flesh and has a red blush skin. They are great for eating fresh from the tree, canning, making pies, and liqueur!

Our friend's Royal Anne was planted during the late 1800s about the same time that a maraschino cherry and liqueur craze hit the American East coast. She was struck by lightning a few decades ago and lost nearly half her spread of branches. She bares the scars of the shocking event, although the remaining limbs eventually balanced the void in her canopy very well.

The birds had their breakfast of cherries before we arrived and did not leave many to harvest. We picked what we could before the rainstorm forced us to seek shelter. Please view the photos of this royal beauty that I posted to DG's PlantFiles in 2010!

Sea captains and merchant traders brought home the elusive maraschino cherries produced from a grove of small dark-red marasca cherry trees in the costal region of Dalmatia (present day Croatia). The sweet Royal Anne cherry was used in lieu of the sour marasca cherry, and then dyed to produce a deep-red color.

Recipes to create the luscious maraschino delicacies were passed around and handed down through generations of New England seaport families. I deciphered an early 1900s recipe for maraschino liqueur from a reprinted book of recipes compiled from the aristocracy of ". . . the last descendants of a long line of sea captains and prosperous mariners . . . "[2] The Royal Anne cherries made an excellent brew with a strong hint of today's artificially produced maraschino flavor, but the cherries were not as firm or brightly colored as we are accustomed.

Little Sweet Hearts

Black heart (black tartarian) cherriesThe next stop in our race was to harvest from a friend's black tartarian cherry, known around here as a black heart cherry. The small dark, almost black, heart-shaped cherries have a firm texture with a big pit. This tree held cherries in various stages of ripeness. I was told the semi ripe cherries can be picked and left to ripen successfully on the kitchen counter, but I do not have the room, nor wish to deal with potential bug issues

The black heart cherry was once a typical backyard orchard tree used for fresh snacking, pies, jams, jellies, preserves, and toppings. The tree is an excellent pollinator for other sweet cherry varieties, too. Black hearts are ornamental in the landscape as well, with beautiful pink or white spring blossoms and yellow-to-red autumn leaf color. Since the cherries are small and do not ship well, commercial growers chose other larger cherry varieties, and the black heart fell out of favor. They can still be found on old farms and purchased through heirloom tree nurseries.

Wild Black Cherry

Wild black cherry-picking from the truck.The last leg of our cherry-picking race had the trickiest access through a few hilly pastures then onto the small grove of wild black cherries (Prunus serotina) where the last field met the forest. In past years, we have picked these cherries as early as the end of May and as late as early July. It depends on the spring weather how soon they develop.

The lowest branches of the older black cherry trees can be too high off the ground to pick without a ladder. We are fortunate that this stand of cherries is situated on a slope so we can back the truck at the top of the hill under their outermost limbs to pick until we are tired, or run out of containers.

Wild black cherriesThe large pea-sized cherries contain large pits that make traditional pitting machines (handheld or counter-mounted) useless. I have friends that use paperclips to slice through and separate the pits from the cherries, but they are adept from years of experience. I just use my thumbnail to dig out the pits and sport black fingernails for a few days. I have also had some limited success with cooking the cherries down with a little water until they burst making separation from the pits easier in a Victorio, or chinois (funnel type), strainer.

The wild black cherry, not to be confused with the chokecherry shrub maturing in the fall, can grow to up to 80' (24.4 meters) tall with racemes, or clusters, of white flowers in the spring. This tree is the bane of farmers with cattle as the dead leaves contain a form of cyanide that can prove fatal if eaten by most animals. The bark has been used medicinally for hundreds of years in relieving coughs and diarrhea, and the finely grained wood is prized by furniture makers. We only use the cherries to make preserves, jams, jellies, syrup, and wine.

The Finish

The final tally was four gallons of cherries, total! This was the smallest amount we have ever harvested. The birds and rain squelched the normal yield of four to six gallons of each variety.

Because of time constraints, I froze the cherries to pit and dehydrate later. Freezing is supposed to make pitting easier--I will have to let you know how that works out. The dried cherries will be used for snacking and baking, or reconstituted for ice cream, jam, or juice as needed.

We were a little disappointed, but happy to have cherries back in the pantry. We maintain hope that next year the weather cooperates for a bumper sweet cherry crop and we can beat the birds to the trees.

Photo Credits:
All photos remain the property of the author.

[1] Self Nutrition Data -Nutrition Facts and Analysis for Cherries, sweet, raw
[2] Old Time Recipes for Home Made Wines, Cordials, and Liqueurs . . .; page 141. Helen S. Wright. Originally published in 1909. Colonial Press.