Cherries have been a beloved fruit throughout history, enjoyed by people for countless generations. While sweet cherries like Prunus avium have been traditionally used in holiday cooking, tart cherries, specifically Prunus cerasus, are the most well-suited cherry variety for cultivation in Nebraska. Among the various tart cherry types, ‘Montmorency’ has long been the preferred choice in the Midwest. This medium-sized tree has been cultivated for over 400 years, standing at 15 to 18 feet in height and width. Other Nebraska-friendly tart cherry varieties include ‘Meteor’ and ‘Balaton’. Additionally, ‘North Star’, a naturally dwarf variety, thrives in the Midwest’s harsh climate. However, a relatively undiscovered group of cherries known as bush cherries offer a remarkable fruiting experience, enhanced winter hardiness, and effortless picking due to their compact stature.
The Saga of Shrub Cherries
In the 1940s, Canadian researchers embarked on a mission to develop a new type of cherry – the Mongolian cherry. By the 1980s, breeders at the University of Saskatchewan successfully crossed the Mongolian cherry with the naturally dwarf ‘North Star’ tree, leading to the creation of a group of shrub-form tart cherries. These shrub cherries inherited the exceptional hardiness and fruit quality of ‘North Star’ while boasting an increased sugar content. The cherry series, aptly named “Romance,” includes captivating cultivars such as Carmine Jewel, Crimson Passion, Cupid, Juliet, Romeo, and Valentine.
Bush cherries, due to their unique breeding history, remain relatively unknown compared to their tree-like counterparts. These cherries, classified as Zone 2 hardy, encounter fewer issues with insects and diseases. Surprisingly, bush cherries even surpass tree cherries in terms of sugar content.
Unveiling the Fruit’s Characteristics
Let’s delve into the distinctive features of some individual bush cherry cultivars:
Reaching a height of 6 feet with a similar width, Carmine Jewel truly amazes with its fruit yield. As the plant matures, its annual fruit production increases significantly from over 15 pounds in the fourth year to an impressive 20-30+ pounds in the fifth year. This cultivar was the first to be introduced in 1999, and it is available from Ames Farm Center.
While blooming a few days earlier than Carmine Jewel, Crimson Passion offers a slightly lower fruit yield. This variety grows to a height of 10 feet with a width of 7 feet. It was released in 2004 and can be acquired from Ames Farm Center.
Boasting a slightly sweeter flavor and moderate fruit production, Juliet stands tall at 5 to 8 feet in height. It joined the market in 2004 and can also be found at Ames Farm Center.
Much like its counterpart Juliet, Romeo offers a slightly sweeter flavor and moderate fruit yield. This variety reaches a height of 6 to 8 feet. Released in 2004, it is available for purchase at Ames Farm Center.
All four cultivars are self-pollinating, meaning the flowers from one bush can pollinate each other, eliminating the need for a second pollinating plant. However, introducing a second pollinating variety can enhance fruit set. Ideally, each plant should be spaced 6 feet apart in a row. Unfortunately, Cupid and Valentine are not available to home gardeners.
Fruit Production: A Timeline
Compared to tree cherries, bush cherries commence fruit production at an earlier stage. While the third year sees only a modest fruit yield, full production is achieved by the fifth year under favorable growing conditions. Among the various cultivars, Carmine Jewel steals the show with its well-established plants producing a staggering 20 to 30 pounds of fruit per plant. Harvest times range from late July to September, depending on the variety.
However, it’s important not to paint an excessively rosy picture of bush cherries. Despite their exceptional winter hardiness and ease of harvesting, they, too, have vulnerabilities when it comes to common cherry insect and disease issues. To yield high-quality fruits, proper site selection, regular care (including watering, mulching, and pruning), and effective pest control measures are crucial.
Nevertheless, considering their substantial benefits, bush cherries are undoubtedly an excellent addition to any home orchard or landscape. These versatile plants can thrive in various settings, from formal orchards to mixed ornamental plantings. Their beautiful flowers and fruit make them an invaluable asset in both formal and edible landscapes. By planting them in a windbreak, not only do you enhance the structure but you also provide a delightful treat for yourself and the local wildlife. Given these considerable advantages, the effort required is undoubtedly worthwhile.
To order these cherry varieties, consult your local garden center or visit Ames Farm Center for spring availability.
My thanks to Vaughn Hammond, former Nebraska Extension Educator, for originally writing this article.
- Feature image – ‘Carmine Jewel’ cherry. Image from Gurneys Seed Nursery.
- ‘Romeo’ cherry. Image from Gurneys Seed & Nursery.
- ‘Juliet’ cherry. Image from Springhill Nursery.