It was a dream of a cherry: Like Rainier, it was yellow, with an attractive red blush, but it matured earlier and was larger and tastier.
Mel Omeg and his son Mike who grow cherries in The Dalles, Oregon, were among those enthused at first about a Washington State University selection known as PC 8011-3.
“I think blush cherries are an important part of any orchard variety portfolio,” Mike said. “They’re much higher risk than dark cherries because of the investment that’s required to harvest them and the susceptibility of weather harming the quality of the fruit, but when they hit, they hit really good.”
Trouble is, most Rainiers grown in The Dalles tend to hit the market around the second week in July, when the cherry season is at its peak.
“When you sell into the peak season, there aren’t the margins there used to be because the supply is much greater and the consumer market is smaller and much more finicky,” Mike Omeg said.
That’s why the Omegs and other growers are interested in high-quality early-maturing cherries. Mike said he’s not so interested in late blush varieties because they’re on the tree longer, exposing them to more risk of wind damage and mildew.
WSU’s PC 8011-3 was patented in 2005 and has been tested in commercial orchards. Nurseries were gearing up to sell the variety when reports of problems with the trees started to come in. When the trees reached three or four years of age, the shank of the scion would crack and split just above the graft union, and sometimes, there was gumming and oozing. In addition, the trees would develop a lot of blind wood in the centers and the spurs would die out, even though other parts of the trees looked healthy, said Dr. Matt Whiting, cherry horticulturist at WSU in Prosser.
PC 8011-3 originated from a cross of two numbered selections made at Prosser by cherry breeder Dr. Tom Toyama in 1980, five years before he retired. The seedling was evaluated for about a decade, and second-test trees were planted at Prosser in 1990.
The fruit ripens more than a week earlier than Rainier, with picking beginning on June 13 in Prosser, on average. It has the same susceptibility to rain cracking and bruising as Rainier, and a firm, crisp texture. Flavor is said to be superior to Rainier.
Whiting said it was suspected that a virus might be responsible for the problems with the trees, so some wood was put through thermotherapy at the Clean Plant Center of the Northwest at Prosser.
Four years ago, the virus-treated budwood was used to make several trees on Mazzard and Gisela 6 for testing at Prosser alongside trees made from infected wood, Whiting said. This year, trees from virus-treated wood are showing identical symptoms to trees made from untreated wood.
Bill Howell, who is now retired from the Clean Plant Center, said it had been assumed that the problem was a virus, but the treatment seemed to make no difference. He noted that the original seedling of 8011-3 had a “funny look” to the trunk.
Although a scion-rootstock incompatibility has been considered as a possible cause, symptoms have been seen on trees on all different rootstocks, including Mazzard, Gisela 5 and 6, Edabriz, and Krymsk, Whiting said.
Mark Hanrahan of Buena, said he picked up some bargain 8011-3 trees on G.6 rootstocks eight years ago and planted a 3-acre block, which was on a windy site, and a 1.5-acre block in a more sheltered location.
Hanrahan said the trees grew like weeds at first, but set very little fruit despite lots of flowers. By year three, he started to see blank wood. In year four, the trees produced a small crop of cherries peaking on 9 row, with some as large as 7.5 row, but started to crack around the graft union. In year five, the trees produced another small crop of extremely large fruit but were visibly declining.
By year six, he had to install a trellis to hold up the trees, as they continue to decline or die. Still, the crop was less than a ton per acre. By year seven, 40 percent of the trees in the three-acre block had died, but the surviving trees set a monster crop and looked healthier, and he made money from the block. This year, he replaced the dead trees with Early Robin and he hopes to stop the decline of the remaining trees.
Lynn Long, Oregon State University extension educator in The Dalles, said he planted 8011-3 on Gisela 6 in a variety trial in about 2000. The trees looked fine for a number of years, even after WSU made the decision to pull back on the variety. But several years ago, the trees started to go downhill with a lot of blind wood and weak growth, even though there were no symptoms on the trunk. “In the last three to four years, they looked really bad, and we’ve taken them all out,” he said.
Omeg said his family’s block was probably planted at around the same time, with the trees on either G.12 or G.6. After about year three, the trees began to collapse and runt out. They cut the trunks at the graft union to see if there were signs of incompatibility but saw none.
Omeg said he and his father had high hopes for the cherry initially. “I remember my dad talking about them and really thinking this might be a great cherry to try,” he said.
Hanrahan said the cherry gives consumers an exceptional eating experience and the fruit has a long harvest window, which is a great advantage to the grower.
Howell said the fruit has exceptionally good flavor and crunch. “It has a nice snap when you bite this cherry, and a lot of people enjoy that,” he said. “If it hangs long enough on the tree, it gets a sweet flavor, but a little different flavor from Rainier.”
“I liked the cherry,” Long said. “I thought it was very promising. The quality of the cherry was high.”
“It’s still one of my favorite cherries for eating,” said Whiting, who thinks the eating quality is better than Rainier.