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Growing Sweet Cherry: Prunus avium

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Cherries, members of the Prunus genus and the Rose family, are related to plums, peaches, and apricots. The two cherry species commonly grown for eating are Prunus avium: sweet cherry, described here, and Prunus cerasus: sour or tart cherry, used for baking.


Form: Tree.
Lifespan: 15-30 productive years.
Leaf retention: Deciduous.
Growth rate: Rapid.
Mature Size: 20-30' high and 15-20' wide without a 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, yellow flesh, edible when ripe, sweet in taste, with a single seed contained within a hard wood shell.
Months for fruit to ripen: 2. Sweet cherries must be tasted to determine when they are ripe. They do not ripen further once harvested, but will spoil.
Storage after harvest: Place in a sealed container without washing and refrigerate for up to one week. Do not keep at room temperature for more than one hour to avoid spoilage. Or wash and freeze them on a cookie sheet (the quickest method) then place in a sealed container in a freezer.
Leaves: Green, oval to lance-shaped, pointed, serrated margins. The leaves appear just after or during blooming.
Stems: No thorns.
Roots: Usually grafted onto dwarfing rootstock. They are subject to root rot in wet soil.
Cultivars of Note:
'Christobalina': a Spanish heirloom cherry, 200 chill hours, not heat tolerant above 90°F.
'Minnie Royal' and 'Royal Lee': 400-500 chill hours.
Wildlife: Attracts bees, birds and mammals. Bird netting is often needed near harvest time.
Toxic / Danger: All parts, including seeds, are poisonous except for ripe fruit.
Origin: The first cultivation started in Asia Minor, although varieties are also found in Northern Europe and North America. Sweet Cherries have been cultivated for more than 2000 years.

Cultivation and Uses

USDA hardiness zones: Usually 4-7. 'Minnie Lee' and 'Minnie Royal' are 6-8. Sweet Cherries may perform inconsistently from year to year in zone 9 depending on the duration of winter temperatures below 45°F.
Chill hours: Usually 500-800. 'Minnie Lee' and 'Minnie Royal' are 400-500. The tree and the ground surrounding it must be in full shade between October 21 and February 21 to help the tree achieve sufficient chill hours.
Heat tolerant: No. High temperatures during fruit development may lead to abnormally shaped fruit on susceptible cultivars.
Sun: Full sun to open shade on the canopy, 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 compost with only a limited amount of compost once a year in early spring. Excess nitrogen promotes brown rot.
Mulch: Spread 3" deep under the canopy to reduce moisture loss and heat stress. Keep mulch 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, all-day shade on its trunk and surrounding ground between October 21 and February 21. This will help it 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 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 various rots, cankers, and 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.
Trees located in USDA hardiness zone 9, and below 4000' elevation, produce few or no flowers and fruit.

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Sweet Cherry: Prunus avium - flowers

Sweet Cherry: Prunus avium - fruit

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Latest update: December, 2018