The Bing cherry was named for Seth Lewelling’s Chinese foreman.
NORTHWEST CHERRY GROWERS
Bing has been king of fresh market sweet cherries in the United States for decades. Though cherry breeders have searched for varieties that don’t have some of Bing’s horticultural weaknesses, it still is recognized as the premier dark, sweet cherry.
The cherry is one of the world’s oldest fruits. Cherries are thought to have originated in the Transcaucus region between the Black and Caspian seas. Cherry pits have been found in Stone Age caves, and the Romans are reported to have introduced cherries to Italy in 74 BCE. The earliest recorded mention of cherries is found in History of Plants, written by Theophrastus, considered the Father of Botany who lived from 372-272 BCE. Theophrastus indicated in his book that cherries had been cultivated for hundreds of years in Greece.
Before Oregon was a state, nursery pioneer Henderson Luelling migrated from Iowa to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1847, bringing 700 fruit tree seedlings in earth-filled boxes to start a nursery. His younger brother Seth joined him in 1850, and by 1851, the family nursery had more than 18,000 fruit trees for sale. One of the original fruit trees brought from Iowa was Napoleon Bigarreau, which Henderson called Royal Ann. It would later become one of the most profitable varieties for Oregon growers.
Seth, who for unknown reasons changed his last name to Lewelling, settled in Milwaukie. With a knack for developing new varieties, Seth is credited for discovering the original Black Republican tree grown from a seed of a Black Eagle cherry. In 1875, he found a promising seedling from a Black Republican planting that he named Bing, after the workman who cared for the trees that produced the new variety. (Accounts differ on whether Seth or his workman developed the variety.)
The Manchurian Chinese Ah Bing was Seth’s foreman, helping run the Lewelling family nursery and supervising 30 other Chinese workers, according to the Oregon Historical Society. During the anti-Chinese panic that swept the West in the mid-1880s, it’s reported that Bing and other Chinese workers lived in the Lewelling home for safety. Bing returned home to China around 1889, after working for Seth for 35 years, the length of his contract. He was never able to return to America because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
In the 1980s, Bing represented more than 70 percent of Washington State’s total cherry acreage. Today, its dominance is about half what it was then and represents around 36 percent of the volume of Pacific Northwest cherries. However, in California, the variety still commands about 60 percent of the volume, according to the California Cherry Advisory Board.
Bing is a heavy producer, averaging 5.5 to 8.5 tons per acre. Harvest timing in the Northwest is around the Fourth of July. Fruit is sweet (soluble solids are around 16 to 20 percent) and the variety, recognized for its eating and high-yielding qualities, has been used extensively in sweet cherry breeding programs. Notable progeny include Rainier (now the number-three variety in terms of volume in the Northwest) and Chinook.
But the cultivar has its share of horticultural problems. Fruit are susceptible to cracking if rain occurs during harvest; winter hardiness of wood and buds can be an issue; and the variety blooms in early April in the Yakima Valley, often before the last spring frost has occurred. Bing is not self fertile and needs pollenizers to set a profitable crop, but many cultivars are incompatible, so growers must be careful about their pollenizer choices. Additionally, the variety’s vigorous growth—unpruned Bing trees will grow nearly 50 feet tall—has made it difficult for growers to control tree size on the commonly used rootstocks of Mazzard and Mahaleb.
But even with its faults, after more than 135 years of cultivation, Bing is still the dominant variety and standard by which new cultivars are judged.
Sources for this article include: The Cherry City, by Bill Lucas; Cherries by Peg Herring for the Oregon State University Experiment Stations research magazine; and A History of Fruit Varieties, edited by David Ferree for the American Pomological Society, which is available from the Marketplace at goodfruit.com.