The Pacific Northwest cherry industry is seeing the effects of a shift to self-fertile varieties in the form of higher and more consistent production.
Self-fertile varieties, such as Chelan, Skeena, or Sweetheart, can produce almost double the yields of standard varieties like Bing, and can still produce the large cherries that the market demands.
It was more than 50 years ago that Dr. Charles Lapins, cherry breeder at Summerland, British Columbia, Canada, recognized the need for self-fertile cherries, recalls Dr. David Lane, who worked with Dr. Lapins as a student in 1967 and went on to succeed him as breeder in 1974.
Other stone fruits, such as peaches and plums, didn’t suffer the same variability in yields due to poor pollinating conditions because they were self-fertile. Dr. Lapins wanted to incorporate the same characteristic into the cherry varieties he was breeding.
In the 1950s, Dr. Dan Lewis and colleagues at the John Innes Institute in England had developed self-compatible cherry seedlings by pollinating Emperor Francis with irradiated pollen from Napoleon.
Dr. Lapins wrote to the John Innes Institute asking for pollen from the self-fertile cherry trees so he could use it in his crosses. He received pollen from two selections: JI 2420 and JI 2434.
Stella, which came from a cross of Lambert and JI 2420, was the first variety that Dr. Lapins developed that had both self-fertility and reasonable fruit quality. It is thought that he named it after his wife, Ella, adding the prefix to keep it consistent with the Summerland tradition of using names beginning with S.
Lane said JI 2420—the one that Stella came from—gave much better progeny than the other John Innes selection. As a result, most of the self-fertile varieties available today have Stella in their parentage.
“It was quite controversial when the self-fertile varieties first came out,” Lane recalled during a phone interview with Good Fruit Grower. “People thought they would overset, would make the cherries small, and would be nothing but trouble.”
Stella itself was not a perfect variety, he added. “It was kind of soft and never became an important variety.”
But one of its offspring, the cherry named after Dr. Lapins, did prove valuable.
Lapins, a cross of Van and Stella, was released in 1984 and gave the British Columbia cherry industry a much-needed boost. Buyers liked the size and quality, growers received high prices for it, and it cropped dependably. “It really set the industry on a path to success and that led to other varieties,” Lane said.
The vast majority of the varieties released since 1973 have Stella in their parentage (see “Summerland cherry releases”). Stella has also been widely used as a parent by other cherry breeders in Washington State and around the world.
Frank Kappel, cherry breeder from 1994 to 2011, said self-fertile varieties have enabled growers to plant solid blocks of cherries without pollinizing varieties, which makes their operations more efficient.
In addition, production has been more consistent than with traditional varieties whose production can vary from year to year depending on pollinating conditions.
In recent years, the program has been making crosses using material derived from the other self-fertile selection that came from the John Innes Institute. The original selection is no longer available, but the breeders have been using crosses that were made in the past from JI 2434, and backcrossing in an attempt to improve fruit quality. No varieties with that heritage have been released yet.
Kappel said the gene pool has been narrowing, and he felt it was important to bring in new genetics. Other self-fertile varieties exist in other parts of the world that don’t originate from the John Innes material. One is the Cristobalina cherry, which is described as a spontaneous self-compatible mutant found in Spain.
Dr. Cheryl Hampson, Summerland’s current cherry and apple breeder, said it’s been difficult to obtain germplasm from other countries as it must go through quarantine to eliminate viruses. That takes a long time, and much of the material does not survive the heat therapy.
Meanwhile, the program continues to release new varieties with the Stella heritage. Last year, the program released a blush cherry, Starletta, and a red cherry called Suite Note. This year, it released the red cherry Sofia.
“I think it was a pretty important breakthrough,” Hampson said of Stella’s development, “I hope that Dr. Lapins, before he left this mortal coil, realized what a big impact he had on the world.”