The History of Cherries

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 Michigan The cherry has a complex and interesting history. Cherries originate from Asia and through the centuries have been cultivated by different peoples in many different lands. Today, cherry trees can be found all over the world.  cherry tree in bloom

It is said that cherries date back as far as 300 B.C., named after a Turkish town of Cerasus. Throughout the years, cherries have been enjoyed for their wonderful taste as well as for their beauty. They have touched the palates of Roman conquerors, Greek citizens, and Chinese nobelmen.

It was only in the 1600s that cherries were brought to America. They reached the Great Lakes area when French colonists from Normandy brought pits and planted them along the Saint Lawrence River and down into the Great Lakes region. Cherry trees were an important part of the gardens of French settlers as they established cities, such as Detroit.

Cherry production as we know it today began in the 1800s. A Presbyterian missionary, Peter Dougherty, who was living in Michigan in 1852, planted cherry trees on Old Mission Penninsula (near Traverse City Michigan). His cherries flourished and soon other area residents began to plant cherry trees as well. This region turned out to be ideal for growing cherries because Lake Michigan tempers the artic winter winds and cools the orchards in the hot summers.

In 1893 the first commercial tart cherry orchards in Michigan were planted on Ridgewood Farm near the site of Dougherty's first orchard. By the 1900s, the tart cherry industry was firmly established in the state with orchards not only in the Traverse City area, but all along Lake Michigan from Benton Harbor to Elk Rapids. Within a short period of time, cherry production climbed passed production of other major crops. The first cherry processing facility, Traverse City Canning Company, was built just south of Traverse City. The company shipped to Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee.

The Montmorency is the primary variety of tart cherry. It was planted in the early orchards and is still used today. The Balaton Cherry is the newest variety of tart cherry grown in America. Dr. Amy Iezzoni developed this cherry variety at Michigan State University. The Balaton cherry is larger, firmer, and sweeter than the Montmorency cherry, and has 3 times health benefits of other tart cherries. Although production is limited, Engle Ridge Farms near Traverse City is now growing the Balaton, and is taking orders now.

As tart cherries were flourishing in the northeast, the northwestern region was beginning to grow sweet cherries. In 1847, Henderson Lewelling planted an orchard in western Oregon. He used nursery stock that had been carried by oxen all the way from Iowa. Lewelling Farms became known for its sweet cherries as it began official production in the 1870s and 1880s.

The most famous sweet cherry got its name from one of Lewelling's Chinese workmen. Another sweet cherry that got its start on Lewelling Farms is the Lambert. Later another variety was by cross breeding Bing and Van varieties. This was done by Dr. Harold W. Fogle at the Washington State University Research Station in Prosser, Washington. Today, the Bing, Lambert, and Rainer varieties combine to account for 95 percent of the Northwestern U.S. sweet cherry production.

Maraschino cherries are well known for their use in drinks and on ice cream sundaes. They are made from sweet cherries and originate from Yugoslavia and northern Italy. There, merchants added a liquere to a local cherry called the "Marasca". This cherry product was imported to the United States in the 1890s as a delicacy. It was found only in the country's finest restaurants and hotels. Then, in 1896, U.S. cherry processors began experimenting by using a domestic sweet cherry called the Royal Anne. They used less liquere and substituted almond oil. Finally, the liquere was eliminated altogether. By 1920, the American maraschino cherry had gained such popularity that it's use had surpased that of the foreign variety in the U.S.

Today the United States produces more than 650,000,000 pounds of tart and sweet cherries every year! Much of the cherry production is centered in Michigan and the Northwest. Michigan grows about 75 percent of the tart cherry crop. Oregon and Washington harvest approximately 60 percent of the sweet cherry crop. Other states have notable cherry production, too: Utah, Wisconsin, New York, Pennslyvania, and California.

The ultimate celebration of cherries is held in the "Cherry Capitol of the World", Traverse City, Michigan, at the National Cherry Festival. It is held every year in July. This festival began from a spring ceremony known as the "Blessing of the Blossoms". Every year, thousands of visitors come from all over the world to celebrate the harvest, and of course….to eat cherries!
courtesy of the Cherry Marketing Institute


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