Cherry, cherry, on the tree…

Sweet cherry: Prunus avium LINNAEUS

Sour cherry: P. cerasus LINNAEUS

Duke cherry: P. gonduini (POITEAU and TURPIN) REHDER

Origin of cultivated types: Greece and Turkey

Of the species, only the first is native to Britain, though it has an extensive distribution, reaching western Asia. The cultivated cherries probably arose in Greece or Turkey, only a few centuries#before Theophrastus mentions them in about the third century.

They seem to have been much valued by Mithridates, King of Pontus, a ruler who was also a skilful physician. To pass on his great knowledge, he wrote (or at least gave his name to) a treatise on botany, and his name eventually became used for any substance believed to counteract poisons. His virtues could not, however, preserve his kingdom from another man whose name later became associated with great luxury. The Roman general Lucullus, during his campaign against Mithridates, supposedly found a cherry tree at Cerasus (now Giresun) in Turkey. The tree was one of the treasures displayed at the subsequent ‘triumph’ in Rome.

A romantic story certainly, and it is known that cherry varieties spread rapidly through the Roman Empire from 68 BC onwards – Pliny mentions eight kinds, both red and black, in Rome, and there were certainly more. Many, no doubt, were grown in Britain. After the fall of the Empire, most kinds seem to have been lost, and a German herbal of 1491 lists only two types, sweet and sour.

Whether they vanished from Britain is not known; the cherry orchards of Kent are traditionally believed to be very ancient. Nevertheless, Henry VIII’s fruiterer, Richard Harris, is credited with reintroducing the cherry to this country, but it is more likely that he merely brought in better varieties. The Tradescant garden catalogue of 1634 lists fifteen varieties, and Ray listed twenty-four in 1688, though later, Miller, in 1724, thought only twenty-one worth eating. The variety sometimes met with today under the name ‘Noble’ was called, in the eighteenth century, ‘Tradescant’s’ cherry and had actually been imported by John Tradescant the Elder from Belgium as ‘the boores Cherye’ for 12 shillings a tree.

The decorative aspects of the cherry were realized very early and, in the absence of many of the flowering trees which we take for granted today, much more appreciated. John Evelyn had them planted in an oval around the carriage entry to his house. By then, serious selection of new varieties had been under way for a hundred years or so, and some interesting cherries were grown that have unaccountably dropped out of use. For instance, in the seventeenth century,’May Duke’ and ‘Kentish’ were the first cherries to ripen each season, the first of these in the month of its name. Both are still available. ‘Kentish’ is a type of morello, possibly very ancient.

The morellos pollinate themselves and will come true from seed, contributing to the longevity of all the varieties in the group. The various ‘Duke’ types are hybrids between morello and sweet cherries, sharing the qualities of both and having the self-fertility of the morello. Both should be more widely grown: hardly anything is more delicious than a ripe morello, and many nursery catalogues are at fault by consigning both morello and Duke to the ranks of cooking cherries’

The equally ancient mazzard cherries can also still be found with a bit of hunting. Thomas Googe erroneously suggested that all these early types were simply obtained by grafting a late type on a vine stock, though this seems an odd piece of horticulture.

Cherries will fit onto walls only with some difficulty. They were often found in kitchen gardens loosely tied against the brick or stone, but otherwise left ‘rude and unseemly’. The ‘May Duke’ mentioned above was one of the commonest varieties, against a south wall for early fruit, and a north one for late. [I was once lucky enough to own a walled garden with one of these trees, long since grown away from its wall].

Othe sorts of cherry were sometimes retarded by building a cloth tent over them and keeping the structure damp, so cooling the air inside [and keeping blackbirds at bay]. The idea comes from a book composed entirely of curious ideas, ranging from ‘Sundrie new and artificial ways for the keeping of fruits and flowers in their fresh hue, after they are gathered from their stalkes and branches’, through to charmers like ‘How to carry gold in a most secret manner’ (as fake bullets covered in lead), and ‘How to steal bees’, to the entirely myste-#rious ‘A Piece whereby to perform some extraordinary service’.

In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cherry orchards the trees were often underplanted with strawberries and currants (a lovely sight, surely), even though a Dr Martyn wrote that the drip from cherry leaves is harmful to many plants [nonsense, in my experience].

Small cherry trees were often grown in pots, a practice common into the early 20th century. Vigour was thereby controlled, and the trees to be taken indoors with the dessert still on the branch.

Cherries are easily forced, provided that they have had a dormant period. Grand eighteenth-century gardens frequently produced cherries almost all year round. For gardens without sufficient resources, the fruit was often dried for winter puddings, as well as being crystallized or preserved in brandy. Cherry wine was once very popular, as was the liqueur.


About david stuart

garden writer and journalist, and occasionally a designer, with a garden in the Scottish borders, and his pal's gardens in Edinburgh, London, and Lincolnshire. They keep both of us very, very busy. Books I've written listed on my website, and dozens of articles and garden and plant pictures. Currently working on several new projects. One of these was to return to painting - see the blog - and which is proving exciting! or, more fun, have a look at
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