Montmorency tart cherries are bright red with yellowish flesh and clear juice. They ripen just after the early sweet cherry varieties, or about mid-July in Traverse City, Michigan. Montmorency cherries are borne on trees that seem bush-like but are 15 to 20 feet tall.
Published January 15, 2011
For a cherry that is synonymous with cherry pie and George Washington’s mischievous hatchet, the Montmorency tart cherry doesn’t have much of a pedigree.
It is thought to have come from the Montmorency Valley just north of Paris, France, where it was named after a noble family that had grown it since the thirteenth century. French settlers moving up the St. Lawrence River Valley toward the Great Lakes brought it to the New World around 1760, perhaps earlier. Why they chose Montmorency over other European cultivars, and how it endured before it became commercialized in the late 1800s, are not part of the record.
What is known is that the American tart cherry industry, which is about half the size of the sweet cherry industry, was built on this one variety. More than 95 percent of North American tart cherries are Montmor-ency, an amarelle-type variety with bright red skin, pale flesh, and clear juice. In Europe, the morello type is the tart cherry of choice. Morello cherries have dark skin, flesh, and juice and are larger, firmer, and sweeter.
The Montmorency fruit sweetens as it ripens, but remains too tart for most people to eat out of hand. Its chief positive aspect is that tartness. Most of the crop is packed in 30-pound tins—25 pounds of cherries and five pounds of sugar—and sold frozen to food manufacturers, for use in pies, jams, and baked goods. Some goes into small cans for the dwindling number of home pie makers. And, for the last 30 years, more of the fruit has been going into cherry juice and dried cherry “raisins” made from sugar-infused fruit.
Despite years of promotion and recognition during February, National Cherry Month, consumption of tart cherries in the United States remains steady at less than a pound per person, about a tenth what Europeans eat. One industry focus on market development seeks to develop new products, and dried cherries and cherry juice have shown growth in recent years even as bakery use declines. Recently, it’s been promoted as a superfruit, based on claimed health attributes.
Researchers have verified many of the old myths about the healthful qualities of Montmorency tart cherries. They are a rich source of antioxidants, which can help fight cancer and heart disease, and other compounds in Montmorency tart cherries do relieve the pain of arthritis and gout, just as proponents claimed. Melatonin in cherries is a sleep aid.
Montmorency cherries found their best new homeland along the shores downwind of the Great Lakes or on peninsulas mostly surrounded by Great Lakes water. In 1852, a Presbyterian missionary, Peter Dougherty, planted cherry trees on Old Mission Peninsula, an 18-mile long, three-mile wide finger of land that splits Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. His cherries flourished, and other growers followed.
Door Peninsula in Wisconsin also became a leading producer of tart cherries in the late 1800s. In Michigan, the industry spread south, finding good sites all along the Lake Michigan shore. Similar sites did not exist in Wisconsin on the cold side of the big lake.
According to the history as told by the Cherry Marketing Institute, the first commercial tart cherry orchards in Michigan were planted in 1893 on Ridgewood Farm, on Old Mission near the site of Dougherty’s first orchard. By the 1900s, the tart cherry industry was firmly established in the state. The region turned out to be ideal for growing cherries because Lake Michigan tempers the winter low temperatures and delays bloom in the spring.
The environment in which Montmorency cherries grow provides a challenge, however. They demand the best fruit sites, the places where rich folks like to perch their homes. Old Mission Peninsula became one of the nation’s first townships with a farmland preservation program, but even then, these sites are often converted to vineyards and wineries if not to houses.
There are about 37,000 acres of Montmorency cherries nationwide, 24,000 in Michigan. In the eastern United States, production sites are around the Great Lakes—in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New York and in the Canadian province of Ontario. Utah, Washington, and Oregon contribute most of the balance.
Montmorency cherry trees are smaller than sweet cherry trees, 15 to 20 feet tall, and are spreading and bushlike, having a weak or no central leader. Unlike sweet cherries, they are self-fertile and are planted in blocks of one variety only.
Despite its dominance in the U.S. industry, Montmorency has numerous shortcomings, according to Dr. Amy Iezzoni, the Michigan State University tart cherry breeder, including susceptibility to diseases, insects, and climatic stresses, poor fruit firmness, and the necessity to add sugar and red coloring to the majority of processed products.
She is trying to develop new tart cherry varieties and has helped introduce the Balaton, a morello-type cherry from Hungary, that
some farmers are growing.