Whether you prefer them baked in a pie, adding color to your favorite cocktail, or as a cool snack on a hot afternoon it is pretty difficult not to like cherries, and it’s been that way for centuries. The first known cultivation of cherries by man probably occurred in what is now Western Turkey in around 100 BC, but there is evidence that human consumption of wild cherries dates back to prehistoric times.
A cherry is the fruit of trees in the Prunus genus of plants, and is actually fairly closely related to the plum, peach, apricot and almond. Cherries are a small type of ‘drupe’ (meaning stone fruit) and will usually have an inedible pit or stone in the center of the fruit that is surrounded by a soft flesh and edible skin.
Although there are currently over 1000 identified and categorized types of cherries – including both those that grow naturally in the wild and an increasing number of cultivars developed by man – almost all of them fall into one of two very broad categories: sweet cherries (Prunus avium) and sour cherries (Prunus cerasus).
Cherry trees grow best in those parts of the world which have a temperate climate and, with the exception of a few relatively rare wild varieties, will not grow in excessively hot or cold areas. Cherry trees will often need another cherry tree in relatively close proximity to pollinate them, although in recent decades a number of self-pollinating varieties have been developed.
Cherry trees (and cherries themselves) are particularly susceptible to a number of parasites – both insect and fungal / bacterial – and can be quite challenging for both commercial and home growers to keep healthy. Popular both for their fruit and their beautiful blossoms, in recent years a number of cultivars of cherry trees have been developed which are able to resist some common pests and have become quite popular with home growers and gardeners.
It is estimated that almost four million tons of cherries are commercially cultivated throughout the world each year: just under 2.4 million tons of sweet cherries, and just over 1.4 million tons of the sour variety. Turkey (where cherry cultivation probably began) leads the world, producing a total of around 650,000 tons inclusive of both varieties per year and is closely followed by the United States (about 500,000 tons). Other major cherry producing countries include Russia, Iran, Ukraine, Spain, Italy and Chili.
Nutritionally speaking, sour cherries have about 50% more vitamin C and far more vitamin A (almost twenty times as much) as sweet cherries, while both varieties provide a small amount of dietary fiber. Most types of cherries have a fairly high antioxidant and natural sugar content. The pits of both varieties contain a small amount of cyanide which, aside from the fact that they taste horrible, is why they are inedible. Accidentally swallowing a cherry pit probably won’t do you any harm, but you won’t want to make a habit of it.
So, what are the most common types of cherries on the market today?
The Bing cherry is the most consumed – and, consequently, the most widely grown – type of cherry in the United States and Canada. It was developed in Oregon in the mid-1870s by horticulturist and orchard owner Seth Lewelling and named after his orchard foreman and assistant, Chinese immigrant Ah Bing.
A type of sweet cherry, the Bing is a comparatively large, heart-shaped cherry with a dark red skin and a small to mid-size pit. The Bing cherry tree is relatively sturdy and early-blooming, with the season generally running from early June to late July. The tree will grow in home gardens across the United States and parts of Canada (although they will require a considerable amount of tending), but is mostly commercially cultivated in the Pacific Northwest – particularly Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.
Often eaten fresh by themselves, Bing cherries tend to darken (and get sweeter) as they ripen, and do not have a particularly long shelf life – often beginning to rot after just a few days of fully ripening. Sometimes used in preserves, pies and other desserts (particularly before they are fully ripe) Bing cherries are also often frozen, canned, and used in fruit cocktails and compotes.
Also called the Napoleon and Queen Anne, the Royal Ann is a type of sweet cherry that will usually have a yellowish red coloration. A medium to large size cherry, the Royal Ann has a distinctive taste that is almost as sweet as the Bing, but with a very noticeable tartness to it.
Probably originating in Central Europe sometime in the 16th century (and currently widely cultivated in Turkey), the Royal Ann was first named the Napoleon cherry after the French Emperor of the same name in the 1820s and later renamed the Royal Ann by Seth Lewelling (developer of the Bing) and his brother Henderson in the mid-1840s.
The Royal Ann is a very fleshy cherry with a relatively small pit. Although it is quite delicious when eaten on its own, because it is not as attractive visually as the deeper red cherry varieties Royal Ann cherries are often used in baking and combined with other cherries in pies and compotes. Royal Ann cherries are also often used in the manufacture of maraschino cherries (discussed below).
A relatively recent addition to the cherry family, the Tulare cherry was discovered completely by accident in a cherry orchard in 1977 in the San Joaquin Valley of California, and was not made commercially available until the late 1980s. Still cultivated mostly in California, the Tulare is thought to be a close relative of the Bing. The tree is quite adaptable to warmer climates, and has become quite popular with home gardeners in recent years, particularly in the southern parts of the United States.
A large heart-shaped cherry, the Tulare has a deep red coloration, a softer and juicier flesh than many other cherries, and a sweet, slightly tart taste. Even with its softer flesh, the Tulane is a durable cherry that both ships and stores well, and is particularly good for canning as well as eating on its own. Ripening a bit earlier than the Bing, the Tulare is one of the first varieties you are likely to see at your local market during cherry season.
A native of British Columbia in Canada, the Van cherry was first developed in the mid-1930s and introduced to the marketplace near the end of the Second World War. One of the sturdiest cherry trees out there, the Van will grow almost anywhere in the United States and southern Canada, and is also quite popular with Australian cherry growers. The Van is also one of the most widely used varieties for pollinating other cherry trees.
The Van produces a medium size, heart-shaped sweet fruit with a dark red or blackish skin. Sometimes eaten on their own, Van cherries are often combined with sour cherries in pie fillings, and widely used in jams and preserves. Van cherries also stand up quite well to freezing and canning.
Although often referred to as a single type, Morello cherries actually refer to one of the two main families of sour cherry cultivars (the other, Amarelle, is discussed below). Widely cultivated in Turkey, Hungary and the Western and Midwestern United States (particularly the state of Michigan), Morello varieties will usually be the tartest cherries you are likely to encounter. Popular cultivars (usually simply identified as Morello at the market) include English, Hungarian, Balaton, Fanal, Northstar and Kansas Sweet.
Morello cherries have a dark red skin and sour, juicy flesh. While some people can tolerate eating Morello cherries by themselves, they are most frequently used for cooking and baking, and are particularly favored as a pie filling. They are also often dipped in chocolate and served as a dessert. A late harvest cherry, the tree of most cultivars is both quite hardy and self-pollinating, making them a favorite with home gardeners with limited gardening space across the globe.
Another native of Oregon, the Lambert cherry was developed by orchard owner Joseph Lambert in the mid-1800s, and first made commercially available in the 1880s. Still mostly commercially cultivated in the Pacific Northwest today, the Lambert is a medium to large heart-shaped sweet cherry with a very dark reddish-black skin and a fairly soft, quite juicy flesh. It is good for eating alone, as well as for compotes, fillings, and preserves. A late bloomer, the tree is quite hardy, and grows well in most parts of North America.
Closely related to (and actually a cultivar of) the Van, the Lapins cherry is another Canadian native. First introduced in 1984, the Lapins cherry was an immediate hit, due in part to its very large size – usually over an inch wide. A sweet cherry with a dark red skin, the flesh is quite firm and very juicy. Excellent for eating on its own, Lapins also stand up well to baking. The Lapins cherry tree is also very popular with home gardeners as it is very tolerant of colder winters (it can survive temperatures of -4F and below) and is also self-pollinating.
Another self-pollinating type of cherry tree very popular with home growers, the Sweetheart produces (not surprisingly) a heart-shaped, sweet cherry with a deep red skin and a very firm, almost crunchy, flesh. A very juicy cherry, the Sweetheart has a uniquely sweet, slightly acidic taste that makes it a favorite with bakers; they are also often used as dessert toppings, or covered with chocolate. A late season cherry, Sweethearts are also very durable and will typically last longer than many other types of cherries after they are picked.
One of the most expensive cherries you are likely to run across, the Rainier was developed by horticulturists at Washington State University in 1952, and named after Washington’s Mount Rainier. A cross between the Van and the Bing, the Rainier is a particularly delicate cherry that has a very thin yellowish skin tinted with red, a yellow flesh with a creamy texture and a high sugar content, giving it a very sweet flavor. Not very adaptable to home growing, the Rainier cherry is almost exclusively grown in the Pacific Northwest. The Rainier is, as far as we can determine, the only cherry with its own holiday: National Rainier Cherry Day is on July 11th, which coincides with the height of its harvest season.
The Santina cherry was developed in Summerland, British Columbia and introduced to the public in the early 1970s. The self-pollinating tree prefers colder winters than some other types of cherries, and grows well in the Northern United States and Canada. Santinas are fairly large, have a dark red, almost black skin and a flatter heart-shape than most cherries. The flesh is quite firm, and the taste is only moderately sweet. Santinas are often used in conjunction with sweeter cherry varieties in fillings and preserves, and to give some subtle added sweetness to a variety of cooked dishes.
Amarelle is the name given to one of two families of sour cherries (Morello, the other family, is discussed above). Amarelle cherries are typically less tart than Morellos, and have a bright red skin and a pale, almost clear, flesh and juice. Probably native to Western Europe and widely cultivated and experimented with in Great Britain throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries (and still sometimes referred to as ‘Kentish cherries’), today Amarelles are no longer commercially cultivated in the UK; Turkey, Russia, Iran, Poland and Ukraine are among the major producers. In the United States, Michigan and Wisconsin account for most of the Amarelle cherry crop, particularly the popular Montmorency variety. Amarelle cherries are widely used in baking and cooking applications, as well as for pie fillings, jams and jellies. They are also often dried, made into syrups (some of which are used in making drinks) and, in Belgium, used in beer-making.
Although you will run into them in bars (they are also often called cocktail cherries) and restaurants the world over, the maraschino is not actually a unique variety of cherry at all. Rather, it is any cherry that has been preserved in a sweet solution usually containing calcium chloride, sulfur dioxide, and sugar syrup among other ingredients. In the United States and Canada, Royal Ann and Rainier varieties are most often used to produce maraschino cherries, while in Europe (and particularly Italy, where they originated) some black, and even sour, cherries are used. Maraschino cherries will usually have the pits removed prior to being packaged (usually in glass or plastic jars) for sale. Along with their use in various cocktails, maraschino cherries are also a popular dessert topping, often being used with various types of cheesecakes, baked cakes, and ice cream.
Lisa has a Bachelor’s of Science in Communication Arts. She is an experienced blogger who enjoys researching interesting facts, ideas, products, and other compelling concepts. In addition to writing, she likes photography and Photoshop.