Nothing says Christmas to me like cherries. The hanging fruit reminds me of shiny red baubles on a Christmas tree, and as a kid, cherries were always a special treat on our Christmas table. I grew up in Brisbane, which is anything but cherry territory, so the cherries had to be imported from somewhere down south, but they were such a wonderful seasonal treat that I’ve long hankered to grow the fruit in my garden.
I’ve got a few cherry varieties planted, but things haven’t quite worked out as I had planned. My two sweet cherries have been in the ground five years, but haven’t yet produced fruit. This isn’t unusual. Sweet cherries are never in a hurry to start bearing, and as I keep reminding my cherry loving parents (who stay here on holidays), there’s always next summer. What has been a rip roaring success is our sour cherry tree. It’s a ‘Morello’, planted a few years ago, still barely six feet tall, more shrub than tree, but absolutely loaded with cherries.
Now it has to be said that even though sweet and sour cherries look the same, they’re entirely different beasts. Sweet cherries are exactly that - sweet. Sour cherries are very tart. Lip puckeringly so when under-ripe, and they don’t get much sweeter when they become plump and deep crimson. But when sweetened a bit with sugar they have an unbeatably complex flavour that makes sweet cherries seem a bit one dimensional.
The two trees belong to different species and have distinct growing habits. Sweet cherries (Prunus avium) need plenty of chill in winter - 800 hours or more under seven degrees - and like a warm, dryish summer. Places like Tassie are prime sweet cherry country, and the trees bear so prolifically down there that second grade cherries are routinely fed to free range pigs. Sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) need about the same amount of chill, but they are much smaller growers than sweet cherries, reaching about four metres tall at maturity. Their compact size makes the fruit easier to protect against birds. Sour cherries are also self pollinating, so you can get away with growing just a single tree, and they begin to fruit much earlier.
I like my sour cherry tree so much that last winter I planted a second variety, the English heirloom ‘Kentish’. I’ll probably collect a couple more. When I was down in Tassie earlier this year, a very savvy farmer even suggested to me that I should consider planting a sour cherry orchard to make the most of the fruit’s relative obscurity. It’s a prospect I’ve yet to rule out.
Merry Christmas everyone. Enjoy your cherries, and if it gets cold enough in your neck of the woods, plant a couple of trees for a homegrown festive treat.
By: Justin Russell
First published: December 2014