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Growing Sweet Cherries: Prunus avium

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A member of the Rose family, related to plums, peaches, and apricots, and cultivated for more than 2000 years. The two cherry species commonly grown for eating are Prunus avium: sweet cherry, described here, and the sour or tart cherry (Prunus cerasus), used for baking.

Form: Tree.
Lifespan: 60-100 years in native regions, much less elsewhere.
Leaf retention: Deciduous.
Growth rate: Rapid.
Mature Size: 20-30' high and 15-20' wide without dwarfing rootstock.
Flowers: White, five petals, fragrant, in clusters of 3-5.
Bloom: Late winter to early spring.
Self-fruitful: No. Another cultivar is needed to cross-pollinate. The planting distance between the two trees should be no closer than their expected mature width, and not more than 50'.
Years before fruiting: 6-7.
Fruit: Red glossy skin, round, 1/2" to 4/5" in diameter, a single seed contained within a hard wood shell, yellow flesh, edible when ripe, sweet in taste. Cherries do not ripen further once harvested, but will spoil.
Months for fruit to ripen: 2. Sweet cherries must be tasted to determine when they are ripe.
Storage after harvest: Place in sealed container without washing and refrigerate for up to a week. Do not keep at room temperature for more than one hour to avoid spoilage. Or wash and freeze on cookie sheet (the quickest method) then place in sealed container in freezer.
Leaves: Green, oval to lance-shaped, pointed, serrated margins. Leaves appear just after or during flower bloom.
Stems: No thorns.
Roots: Usually grafted onto dwarfing rootstock. Subject to root rot in wet soil.
Cultivars of Note:
'Minnie Royal': - 200-300 chill hours, Pollinated by 'Royal Lee'.
'Royal Lee': - 200-300 chill hours, Pollinated by 'Minnie Royal'.
Wildlife: Attracts bees, birds and mammals. Bird netting often needed near harvest time.
Toxic / Danger: All parts poisonous except ripe fruit.
Origin: Original cultivation started in Asia Minor although varieties are also found in Northern Europe and North America.

Cultivation and Uses
USDA hardiness zones: Usually 4-7. 'Minnie Royal' and 'Royal Lee' cultivars are 6-9. They may perform inconsistently from year to year in zone 9 depending on the duration of winter temperatures below 45°F.
Sunset climate zones: 2, 6-7, 14-15, 32, 34, 37, 39.
Chill hours: Usually 500-800. 'Minnie Royal' and 'Royal Lee' cultivars: 200-300.
Heat tolerant: No. High temperatures during fruit development may lead to abnormally shaped fruit on susceptible cultivars.
Sun: Full sun except afternoon shade in regions where temperatures exceed 90°F.
Drought tolerant: Yes, when grafted onto the Mahaleb rootstock.
Water after becoming established: Deep water every 1-4 weeks depending on temperature. Do not allow roots to dry out completely.
Soil: Very well drained, deep, high organic content, pH 6.1-7.0 (slightly acidic side of neutral).
Fertilize: Use a low nitrogen fertilizer such as 5-10-10 once a year in the spring. Excess nitrogen promotes brown rot.
Mulch: Spread 3" deep under the canopy to reduce moisture loss and heat stress. Keep one foot away from the trunk. Place a rodent gnaw guard around the base of the trunk.
Planting: Placing on top of a mound improves water drainage. The root crown must be above soil level by 1-2". In zone 9, locate on the north side of a structure where it receives full winter shade on its trunk and full summer sun on its leaves. This will allow it to accumulate more chill hours.
Prune: In winter, remove dead, broken and diseased limbs. Remove crossing limbs and those that do not promote a strong structure. If the trunk or branches are exposed to full sun, apply white citrus tree paint to prevent sunscald.
Propagation: Cuttings grafted onto rootstock. Can be grown from seed to produce a very large tree.
Pests: Very susceptible to brown rot, bacterial canker, cytospora canker, root and crown rots and several viruses.
Uses: Edible fruit.

Sweet cherry is considered one of the most difficult fruit trees to grow because of its disease susceptibility and heat intolerance. Sufficient chill hours to induce flowering and fruit set may be marginal in hot climates.

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