California growers rave about the early coloring Royal Rainier cherry, but nurseries and researchers warn that varieties may not perform the same in different areas.
The Royal Rainier cherry has failed to live up to expectations for Washington State orchardist Frank Lyall. It may be big, and it may ripen earlier than the original Rainier cherry, but at his Mattawa orchard, it tastes like oxidized wine and has a sulfurous aftertaste, he says.
"It’s totally inedible. We’re looking at either having to graft those trees over or bulldoze them out. We paid a tremendous premium for those trees. I don’t know how in the world that thing got to market. Nobody must have actually tasted the cherry."
But down in California, where the Royal Rainier originated, Kingsburg grower Brent Jackson couldn’t be happier with it. "For us, it’s been wonderful," he said. "The fruit sizes nicely, and has good sugar levels, and low acid."
Royal Rainier came from the breeding program of Zaiger’s Genetics in Modesto, California. It is a cross of experimental varieties and is not related to Rainier, a cross of Van and Bing bred at Washington State University.
Leith Gardner, manager at Zaiger’s, said Royal Rainier was selected in 1983, was evaluated thoroughly to make sure it had the quality that was necessary and didn’t bruise too easily. It has been planted commercially since 1999.
Dave Wilson Nursery near Modesto, California, is the exclusive supplier of Royal Rainier trees. General Manager Dennis Terry said he’s perplexed by reports from Washington that the cherry tastes bad. He describes it as a remarkable, highly flavored variety that taste panels consistently rank the best. It’s so good, he says, that at his nursery it outsells Rainier by a two-to-one margin. He estimates that about 750 acres of Royal Rainier have been planted, the vast majority in California.
"We have dozens and dozens of growers who have it here in California. I think the most universal comment I have is, ‘The flavor’s outstanding.’ It’s been our number-one cherry."
Terry said he’s not convinced that Royal Rainier can’t be grown successfully in the Pacific Northwest. No matter where the cherry is grown, if it’s picked too early, as soon as it begins to blush, it won’t taste good, he said. "Determining the true picking time of the variety is the most critical thing that’s going to change when you move from one geographic location to another."
Lyall said there is a tendency for growers to pick fruit early to gain a marketing advantage and the sulfur taste is worse in less ripe fruit, but it never completely goes away. "Maybe our volcanic soil brings out that sulfurish taste," he wondered.
John Williamson in Caldwell, Idaho, has a fourth-leaf planting of Royal Rainier that produced its first full crop this year. Williamson said the variety develops more red blush than Rainier.
"I think you have a tendency to go out and want to pick them. They look ripe, but they’re really not. I thought they had a little bit of an off flavor until they were really ripe, and then they were fine."
Grower Brent Jackson has found that a cherry variety can vary greatly in quality, depending on where it’s grown. He’s grown the original Rainier in test blocks and has nothing good to say about it.
"It’s probably one of the worst-eating white cherries I’ve ever eaten in our area. In northern California, it’s a nice-eating cherry. I’ve bought Rainiers from Washington, and it’s a completely different-tasting cherry. It eats real nice.
"It doesn’t surprise me that Royal Rainier may not be as good in Washington as they are here because I’ve seen the opposite be true with Rainier," he added. "Climate makes a huge difference."
Jackson has 8,000 acres of peaches, plums, nectarines, apples, and Asian pears, but only 80 acres of cherries. Royal Rainier was the first cherry he planted about seven years ago, and he feels fortunate that his 12 acres of that variety have turned out well.
"Since then, we’ve taken about 15 to 20 cherry varieties per year and put them in our test block, and out of those, maybe one or two a year will make commercial grade," he said.
He has no qualms about planting new peach or nectarine varieties on a commercial scale, but says the risk is much greater with cherries. Even cherry varieties developed at Zaiger’s Genetics, just two hours north of his orchard, don’t necessarily perform the same in the central valley, south of Fresno, where the temperature typically exceeds 100 degrees for 25 to 50 days each year. Bing –produces 80 percent doubles in those conditions.
Terry has also observed that cherries perform differently in the different regions. "We have Lapins (from British Columbia, Canada) that come down here that are absolutely fabulous," he said, "But –conversely, Benton [from WSU] doesn’t strike me as that great, but it’s been raved about."
Lyall, in Washington, believes that numerous new and hyped-up cherry varieties have failed to live up to expectations because cherry varieties are being pushed onto the market too soon, before they’ve been fully tested beyond research plots.
This is hard on growers because of the tremendous investment that goes into planting cherries, he said. Oregon State University agricultural economist Dr. Clark Seavert estimates that a grower invests $15,000 per acre in a new cherry planting before it begins to generate a return.
Tieton, a WSU release, is very site dependent and may produce soft fruit in lower-elevation orchards, Lyall said. Chelan, an early-maturing variety from WSU, is large and attractive but doesn’t have much –flavor if picked too early.
Terry, at Dave Wilson Nursery, thinks Chelan is lacking in flavor everywhere it’s grown. "Everybody’s kind of underwhelmed with the flavor of the variety, and it’s all about flavor," he said. "Chelan is a variety that really needs to be replaced with something better."
Dr. Matt Whiting, cherry horticulturist at WSU in Prosser, said if the market is good, growers might be encouraged to harvest early varieties a little too early. "And when you do that, you have a different—tasting Chelan, or Royal Rainier, than something that’s allowed to grow on the tree a little longer. Fruit maturity does make a big difference, and how the environment affects all those components of flavor as it develops towards maturity is a big unknown."
He wonders what role nutrition might play in flavor, also.
Dr. Jim Olmstead, manager of WSU’s cherry breeding program in Prosser, said researchers analyze new selections at the research station, and advanced selections are planted in the orchards of grower collaborators. Researchers could keep selections until they evaluate every trait and find out how they perform in different locations, but that would take many years.
"We can definitely do that," he said. "But that’s not the feedback I’m getting from the grower community. They’re willing to take on an acceptable level of risk, and that’s a very loaded term. How do you decide what’s acceptable? And it’s different for each grower."
A large, diversified operation can take on more risk than a small grower who is depending heavily on the new planting for income, Olmstead pointed out.
"There’s an inherent risk that you’re going to try something and it’s not going to work, and particularly with cherry varieties there tend to be some environment-specific interactions that go on."
Whiting believes that new varieties are inadequately tested because growers are so eager to plant them. "We’ll be looking at a selection in Prosser, and you have growers in Wenatchee or the [Columbia] Basin saying, "I want 5,000 trees of those."
Gardner at Zaiger’s Genetics advises growers not to start out on too big a scale.
"Think small until you know it’s going to fit into your program and will perform the way you want it to," she said. "For some growers, 40 acres is small, but to me, that’s too big a risk. Cherries are a little fickle, and they don’t always perform like a peach or nectarine would. Plant a row or two rows, but keep it to five acres or less."