Garden Oracle / Drought and Heat Tolerant Gardening / Tucson - Phoenix - Arizona - California

Growing Sweet Cherry:
Prunus avium

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Botanical Overview

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


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: Usually no, but one cultivar is. Most trees need another cultivar within 50' to cross-pollinate.
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. An edible, aromatic gum is produced by making a small cut in the bark. This gum is produced by the plant to seal out insects and fungal diseases. See Pests, below.
Roots: Usually grafted onto dwarfing rootstock. They are subject to root rot in wet soil.
Cultivars of Note:
'Royal Crimson': USDA hardiness zones 8-10, 200-300 chill hours, self-fruitful.
'Minnie Lee' and 'Royal Lee' need 400-500 chill hours, dislike heat and do not flower or fruit well in zone 9 and above. Some wholesale nurseries still attach tags on these trees with unrealistically low chill hours.
Wildlife: The flowers attract bees. The fruit attracts birds and mammals. Bird netting is often needed near harvest time to protect from birds.
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.

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Cultivation and Uses

USDA hardiness zones: Usually 4-7. 'Royal Crimson' is said to be 8-10.
Chill hours: Most sweet cherries need 500-800 chill hours. 'Royal Crimson' is said to need 200-300. Plants with more than a 300 chill hour requirement usually do not flower or set fruit in USDA zone 9 and above. Chill hours are defined as winter temperatures between 32-45°F. Sudden temperature spikes above 60°F in winter subtract chill hours.
The tree, and the ground surrounding it, should be in full shade between October 21 and February 21 to help it achieve sufficient chill hours.
Heat tolerant: No. Temperatures over 90°F may kill the tree unless it has full afternoon shade. High temperatures during fruit development may lead to abnormally shaped fruit on susceptible cultivars.
Drought tolerant: Only if grafted onto rootstock with that attribute.
Sun: Full sun to open shade on the canopy, with afternoon shade in regions where temperatures exceed 90°F.
Planting: In regions where summer temperatures exceed 90°F, locate this tree where it will receive morning part shade or open shade, afternoon full shade, and in very well draining soil. Planting on top of a mound can improve water drainage.
In zone 9, consider locating it 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, although it may put the tree in danger of late frost damage.
The planting distance between two trees should be no closer than their expected mature width, and not more than 50'.
Soil: Very well draining, high organic content, pH 6.1-7.0 (slightly acidic side of neutral).
Fertilize: Use organic fertilizer once a year in early spring. Excess nitrogen promotes brown rot.
Water after becoming established: Deep water every 1-4 weeks depending on temperature. Do not allow roots to dry out completely.
Mulch: Spread organic mulch under the canopy and 8" away from the trunk to reduce moisture loss and heat stress. Place a rodent gnaw guard around the base of the trunk.
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. Seed, stratified for 2-3 months, can take 18 months to germinate.
Pests: This tree is very susceptible to various rots, cankers, and viruses. Gum oozing from the bark, called Gummosis, is usually due to mechanical injury, bacteria, or fungi. If gummosis appears within 3' of the ground, however, it may be due to borer activity. Look for frass (wood dust and insect excrement) in the gum to confirm this.
Uses: Edible fruit, ornamental.


There is a cross between sweet cherry and Japanese plum called pluerry.

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Sweet Cherry: Prunus avium - flowers

Sweet Cherry: Prunus avium - fruit

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Latest update: April, 2022