Dwarf Sour Cherries on the Big Stage
Did you know that Romeo and Juliet are Canadian? And from Saskatchewan, no less.
These two might be lesser known than their Italian namesakes from fair Verona, but they deserve our applause as well.
The Romeo and Juliet dwarf sour cherry (Prunus cerasus x Prunus fruiticosa) are part of the Romance series that was released by the University of Saskatchewan in 2004, after 60+ years of research and development. The other varieties in the series are Cupid, Valentine, and Crimson Passion.
What makes them so special?
They’re cold hardy to zone 2. They’re sweet and tart and great for fresh eating (unlike standard sour cherries). They’re relatively disease resistant and easy to grow. The birds tend to leave them alone.
I love these cherry varieties because they’re extremely compact like a bush, and therefore really easy to harvest. If I’ve got some time and patience, I’ll take a stroll around and pick the fruit by hand. If I want to get down to business, I’ll lay down a tarp and shake the cherries loose.
The springtime bloom is absolutely stunning. They flower slightly before the leaves come out, so it looks like a cloud of blossoms in our yard.
I won’t get into the nitty gritty of the crossing and back-crossing that led to the dwarf sour cherry, but suffice to say it’s basically a cross between Mongolian cherries (Prunus fruiticosa) and sour cherries (Prunus cerasus).
Sour cherries play an important role in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine from Syrian sour cherry meatballs, to Greek “spoon sweet,” going back to ancient times. Eventually they were introduced to Western Europe through trade routes, and grew in popularity in England under Henry VIII. Sour cherries reached North America by way of the Virginia colonies in the early 1700s.
The Mongolian cherry is also known as the European dwarf cherry, and it’s native from Northwestern China all the way to Italy. The fruit is typically sour, and as a result it’s reserved for processing and baking.
The special characteristics the Canadian dwarf sour cherry gets from its parents are a sweet/tart flavor combination, and an easy-to-cultivate bush-like stature. This was achieved through years of crossing and back-crossing, and selecting for the characteristics that the folks at U Sask were looking for.
When I was a kid my grandparents grew a ton of different fruit varieties on their farm. I vividly remember reaching up and grabbing a shiny red cherry, popping it in my mouth and immediately spitting the whole thing out because it was SOUR. Inedible sour. After that point I assumed all northern cherries were gross tasting.
If only Ralph and Shirley had known about the dwarf sour cherry—although the Romance line was about ten years away from being released at that point.
The moral of the story is that young me was wrong, you CAN grow tasty cherries in northern climates!