The Napoleon cherry, a light, yellow-skinned variety, has been called different names through the centuries, several of them relating to royalty. In the West, it’s commonly called Royal Ann, but it’s also gone by the names of Queen Ann, Napoleon Bigarreau, Wellington (used in England when Napoleon was not in favor), and Oxheart. For many years, it was one of the most profitable cherry varieties grown in the Pacific Northwest.
The origin of Napoleon is unknown. However, as early as 1667, the cherry variety was mentioned, according to U.P. Hedrick. Hedrick wrote in his 1915 Cherries in New York report that a Belgian by the name of Parmentier named the cherry after the famous emperor in 1820.
In 1847, Henderson Lewelling brought 700 fruit trees from Iowa to Oregon’s Willamette Valley and established a cherry orchard and the first nursery in the Pacific Northwest. One of the trees was Napoleon Bigarreau. Bigarreau is the French term for firm fleshed. Seth Lewelling joined his brother Henderson in 1850. Seth, who later became famous for developing the Bing cherry, renamed the Napoleon tree Royal Ann, for reasons now long forgotten.
Salem, Oregon, became a hub for cherry orchards in the late 1800s, and when Salem Canning Company opened in 1890, cherries were included in the initial pack. In the next 40 years, Salem’s cherry canning industry grew to a dozen canneries, and the area had 2,500 acres of bearing cherries. The average price paid by canners for Royal Ann in 1928 was five to seven cents a pound. Demand for canned cherries dropped during the Great Depression, resulting in a surplus of cherries. A number of Salem processors began brining cherries as they looked for new markets.
In the early 1900s, the sugary, lipstick red, processed maraschino cherry was used to decorate ice cream sundaes, beverages, baked hams, and other foods. But most American processors imported Italian brined marasca stock to manufacture maraschinos because American cherries were too soft.
Oregon State University horticulturist Ernest Wiegand perfected a new maraschino cherry made from Oregon’s Royal Ann variety by adding calcium salts to the brine to firm the cherries and almond extract to mimick the taste of marasca pits, thereby eliminating the alcohol used by Europeans to marinate the cherries. The first brined cherry pack using Wiegand’s method was done at Max Gehlhar’s dryer in 1927 in Salem.
Wiegand’s breakthrough led to the rise of maraschino cherry processors on the West Coast, particularly in Oregon. Royal Ann cherries were also an important part of canned fruit cocktail. Canned cherry production remained strong from the mid 1900s through the 1960s, but began to decline as consumer tastes shifted tofresh fruits and vegetables.
Today, acreage in the West has shifted from Royal Ann to fresh market cherries, and few canneries handle Royal Ann cherries. The variety is used almost exclusively for brining.
Napoleon was placed on the American Pomological Society’s Fruit List in 1862 after at least 40 years of performance in American orchards, stated Cornell University’s Susan Brown in A History of Fruit Varieties. “It still represents a major cultivar because of the ease with which it can be bleached for maraschino cherry production and the fine quality of its canned products,” she said. The variety is grown in nearly all cherry regions worldwide, from the United States to Europe, Japan, South Africa, and Australia.
Although Napoleon is a fine cultivar, the variety has its weaknesses. Brown wrote that greater resistance to rain-induced cracking, brown rot, bacterial canker, silver leaf infection, and western X disease would be desirable.
Napoleon is found in the pedigree of several cultivars, such as Lambert, Merton Bigarreau, Gil Peck, and Sodus, the latter three released from the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.Information for this article came from A History of Fruit Varieties, edited by David C. Ferree, The Cherry City, by Bill Lucas, and Oregon Sweet Cherries Make Their Mark on the World, by Peg Herring.