Jane McLeod: Local cherry trees as easy as pie

Jane McLeod/Special to the Pilot & Today

My friend, Grace, bakes wonderful cherry pies from cherries off her tree grown right in her own backyard. And yes, she lives here. It might be hard to believe, if like me, you are looking out on a snowy white landscape right at this moment, but it is a Montmorency cherry tree loaded down with plump red fruit that I’m envisioning instead.

There are more than 1,000 different varieties of cherry trees grown in North America but only about 10 of these are utilized for commercial use. The Montmorency accounts for 95 percent of the sour cherry market grown predominantly for use in pies. The tartness gives the fruit complexity and an acid backbone for cooking. Each tree has the capability of producing two to three bushels or, in Grace’s terms, about 30 pies’ worth.

Originating in Europe but cultivated throughout the world, the two main cherry species are the Prunus avium, or Sweet Cherry, and the Prunus cerasus, or Sour Cherry, of which the Montmorency is the most popular. Cultivated in the United States for more than a century, the commercial crop of some 300 million pounds – of which almost 75 percent come from Michigan – has no shortage of health benefits. Like most fruit, they are fat-, sodium- and cholesterol-free. In addition, cherries, especially the sour ones, are a particularly good source of Vitamin C, potassium and antioxidants. However, I will steer clear of the benefits (or lack thereof) of pie pastry. For a ‘sweeter’ sour cherry, leave the cherries on the tree longer, and they will reach a dark red when fully ripe and when their sugar content is highest. Refrigerate immediately, and use or freeze within three days of picking.They do not last long (for more reasons than one) off the tree, but school yourself to freeze some, because freezing preserves, concentrates and improves their taste.

The Montmorency cherry tree is much hardier than its sweet cousins. It needs at least 1,000 hours of winter chill growing in zones 4 to 7, but a snap freeze in the spring – just when the tree is setting bloom – can prevent the tree from later bearing fruit. Plant the tree in full sun, and choose a sheltered but aerated spot in well-drained soil. Add mulch, and water deeply if the weather is dry at flowering or when the fruits begin ripening. An annual top dressing of compost is all that is needed for feeding. It matures at a medium growth rate to a height of 8 to 15 feet with a branch spread of 10 to 20 feet in a pleasing, round shape. In addition to the wonderful fruit, this cherry tree bears clouds of late flowering, sweet-smelling five-petal white blossoms during a three week period in late May and early June, complimented by smooth dark green leaves. Unlike a sweet cherry tree, which needs a similar tree in order to cross-pollinate, a solitary sour cherry tree, such as the Montmorency, is self-fertilizing. It produces, on its own, a big, red, all-purpose pie cherry that is crack-resistant.

The world of cherry pies depends on the Montmorency cherry – and this winter, a pie from a bag tucked carefully away in our freezer will be baked, thanks to Grace, her tree and cherries.

Jane McLeod is a master gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825.

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