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~ The Sour Cherry, Prunus cerasus ~

Sweet cherries are the cherries found at every local grocery store, and are appreciated for their deep, rich, plum-like flavor that is largely lost upon heating. Sour cherries, on the other hand, are rarely ever seen on the market. Yet, the true, wonderful cherry flavor that we associate with cherry candies and various commercial preparations is not found to any great extent in sweet cherries; sour cherries, however, burst with it, when provided with a little heat and enhance with sugar. Sour cherries are what you need if you want to become famous for your pies and jams.

Unlike their sweet counterparts, sour cherries are dead-easy to pit: hold the cherry with one had, pull on the stem, and the pit comes out with the stem. Once pitted, they freeze very well.

Sour cherries are also called tart or pie cherries. They are delicious in salads (that's right!), jams and jellies, oriental sauces, beverages, cheesecakes and pastry garnishes. The frozen fruit can be coated in flour and incorporated to muffin batter just before baking to make delicious cherry muffins.

A mature sour cherry tree is smaller than a sweet cherry tree, and self-fertile, an important consideration where space restrictions exist. Early in the spring, the reddish branches are covered with snowy white blooms, all abuzz with pollinators. Many birds, good and bad, are fond of the fruits; in order of frequency, American Robins, European Starlings, Cedar Waxwings, Grackles, Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays. It's possible to net the tree, but when the tree is mature (>10 yrs), there will be enough cherries for both people and feathered creatures. I always have plenty to freeze and give away. Expect litter of pits around the tree, which doesn't show up in grass, but will on asphalt or sidewalks.

Named varieties include:

Montmorency This century-old cultivar is by far the easiest to find on the market, providing spectacular bloom in very early spring, and an abundant crop of red-skinned, yellow-fleshed, pink-juiced fruit in July, outstanding for cooking and pie-making. Tree grows about 7m tall.
North Star The tree grows to half the size of 'Montmorency,' 3.5m. Red-juiced, excellent for pies and cobblers, eaten fresh when fully ripe.
SK Carmine Jewel Dwarf selection, excellent hardiness, early-ripening, very dark red fruit high in sugar. Recommended for juice and wine.

Easy Recipe for Chinese Hot Cherry Sauce

1 1/2 cup pitted sour cherries
1 cup (250 mL) President's Choice or other brand Hot Red Pepper jelly
1 3/4 cups condensed milk (unsweetened)
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup vinegar
3 big garlic cloves, very finely chopped
1 small "thumb" fresh ginger, peeled and very finely chopped

Slowly bring to a boil, and simmer (gentle boiling) over medium heat for 20-25 minutes. Refrigerate. Best served with egg rolls, or tempura fried chicken.

"Not Quite a Recipe" for Sour Cherry Pie Filling

Cherries (no more than 3 cups)
Sugar, about half the amount of sugar as you have cherries
Corn starch (much better than flour), about one quarter the amount of corn starch as you have cherries

Sour cherries give off considerable amounts of water when cooked and contain little pectin, so it is quite challenging to make a cherry pie with the proper consistency, while avoiding a soggy bottom crust. For these reasons, I prefer to make my pie filling in advance, adjusting the degree of sweetness and the texture of the filling to taste before committing it to a pie. Put all the ingredients in a pot, and gently bring to a boil. Mix constantly to prevent the bottom of the pot from burning. Still stirring, boil gently for 4-5 minutes, until the cornstarch is no longer grainy (taste to check) and becomes gelatinous (the cherries will be swimming in a translucent matrix). Refrigerate before using in pie making or to garnish cheesecakes. Once the filling is completely cooled, check that the texture is as you like it. You can reheat with a bit more water to thin or a bit more corn starch to thicken. If the filling is opaque and grainy (the corn starch is undercooked), boil gently a little longer for use as an unbaked cheesecake garnish. This is not necessary for use in pies, as the mixture will be baking for nearly an hour.


Sour cherry trees are hardy to zone 3.

Site, Soil and Habit
The sour cherry tree is very accomodating of soil types, but prefers a rich, oraganic, loamy substrate. Vigor, fruit yield and quality are increased with sun exposure. Newly transplanted trees should be well watered.

Cultivars are routinely grafted on rootstock.

Pests and Diseases
Include cherry fruit fly, black cherry aphid, fruit tree leafroller, and cherry slug, tent caterpillars and brown rot. Birds are eager to consume the fruit and may not wait until they are fully ripe. In mature trees, they will mostly eat the fruit in the upper branches, so the trees should be pruned when young to produce more lower branches. Netting, plastic owls, aluminum pie plates have been reported to have limited success. It's best to be philosophical, and enjoy the wildlife while picking within your reach.

Sour Cherry Links

University of Saskatchewan - Home of the 'SK Carmine Jewel' breeding program.
DNA Gardens - Commercial source for 'SK Carmine Jewel.'
The Cherry Marketing Institute - Many recipes, nutritional information and cherry products.

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