Cherry Showcase, with 60 varieties, tests the testers
Cherry growers wanting to try out the taste and texture looked at 60 varieties and 160 samples originating from breeding programs from across North America and Europe and grown at five locations.
Put 19 eight-foot tables horseshoe-style around the room’s perimeter. On each table, put seven or eight clamshells overflowing with ripe sweet cherries. Give 50 or so people evaluation sheets and let them go to it, tasting and eating black cherries, red cherries, yellow cherries, blush cherries. Provide plenty of places for pits and stems.
If you do all that—plus lots of work beforehand—you have the Sweet Cherry Showcase. With nearly 160 samples and 60 varieties, it was nice they were alphabetized, from Attika to numbered selections from Washington.
This year’s was the seventh or eighth annual event, Wally Heuser thought. Greg Lang mentally reviewed previous locations. This year was the first time at the Southwest Michigan Research and Education Center at Benton Harbor.
The event July 8 was late for a season in which Michigan cherries came more than two weeks early, but most were picked at optimum ripeness at five locations in late June and kept refrigerated. The showcase is a joint effort between Michigan State University sweet cherry guru Greg Lang and his staff and Wally Heuser and Wanda Heuser Gale and their staff at International Plant Management, with help from growers and horticulture experiment stations across Michigan and in New York.
For 12 years, International Plant Management has had a contract with Cornell University to propagate and promote varieties from the now nearly defunct New York sweet cherry breeding program. Bob Andersen, who retired as breeder there three years ago, has kept an active interest in the selections he made while at Cornell, several of which are still being evaluated or have been released. There were several NY numbers in the clamshells, as well as older varieties like BlushingGold, BlackGold, WhiteGold, and BlackYork and some newer releases like the Pearl series—BurgundyPearl, EbonyPearl, BlackPearl, and RadiancePearl. A variety named Andersen, which he developed as a stem-on variety for processing, was released three years ago.
Wanda Heuser said that BurgundyPearl is a big hit with consumers. At the tasting, NY 1038 clamshells seemed to need refilling several times.
Andersen came north from his retirement home in North Carolina to talk about the Cornell varieties.
“Cherry breeding in the eastern United States is pretty much done,” he said. “The New York program was in the wrong place.”
That’s too bad, because the market for locally grown fresh sweet cherries is growing, and Michigan growers provide the biggest share of the sweet cherries for processing. The shake and catch harvest method used in the tart cherry industry works well with sweet cherries harvested for canning, use in frozen products like yogurt and ice cream, and for brining for the manufacture of glace and maraschino cherries.
“Stay interested,” Andersen told the growers. “Find new things from elsewhere.”
New York and Michigan have a long symbiosis, but New York had the breeding program and Michigan the industry. That wasn’t the best combination. Cornell is now focusing on apples and phasing out of cherries.
Washington varieties are bred for an arid climate that is less cold in winter, Andersen said. They are often not cold hardy enough for Michigan, nor are they resistant to the major damp climate diseases like bacterial canker and brown rot. They are bred to resist powdery mildew, but that’s a dry-climate problem. Michigan growers need varieties that resist cracking under rainy and humid conditions.
British Columbia varieties are a somewhat better fit for Michigan on the cold hardiness front, and Sweetheart gets good marks.
International Plant Management also has an agreement with the University of Bologna and is evaluating several Italian varieties. While Italy isn’t as cold as Michigan, it is rainy and humid so cracking is a problem there, as it is in Michigan. Varieties carrying the name Star are from Bologna. Early Star was the earliest variety in the tests this year. “Big Star didn’t crack too bad,” Wally Heuser said. Wanda called this year a crackfest.
Varieties also come from other places. Regina, for example, comes from Germany and is a variety Wally Heuser likes, despite its pollination problems. He recommends using two pollinizing varieties with it. Self-fertile varieties are very desirable, Andersen said. BlackGold is making its place in nursery catalogs for home orchards because it blooms late and is self-fertile.
Since his retirement, Andersen has been working with Dr. David Cain at International Plant Genetics, Inc., Bakersfield, California, looking at cherries that will stand the heat of the southern Imperial Valley. Once a breeder of cherries that need 800 or 900 chill hours a year, he’s now looking at those needing 150 hours or so.
Such cherries could produce fruit in southern California already by March 15, lengthening the California season by two months. Combine those with the British Columbia production area and varieties still picking in August, that’s a six-month marketing season for North American sweet cherries.
Take those same varieties to the Southern Hemisphere and you have fresh sweet cherries year around. That’s what consumers say they want, Andersen said.
Lang’s work with sweet cherries in high tunnels also shows it is useful to to evaluate varieties from all over. Washington varieties can be grown under high tunnels in Michigan, protected from wind, rain, freezes, and diseases like canker and brown rot.
In his data this year, western varieties like Skeena, Benton, Rainier, and Summit produced the largest fruit in his tunnels, reaching 37 millimeters in diameter and weighing up to 20 grams. BlackPearl and BurgundyPearl from New York weren’t far behind.
The Sweet Cherry Showcase in Benton Harbor, Michigan, was a success July 8 and has become an annual event.