Sour Cherries

Grow your own cherries with shrub forms

By: Sandy Feather ©2013
Penn State Extension

Q. I would love to grow sour cherries for canning and baking, but I have a very small city lot that is too small to plant a tree of any size. I have heard of very dwarf sour cherries, but cannot remember what they are called. Do you have any information about such a plant?

A. There are sour cherry hybrids that grow as medium to large shrubs, rather than trees. They are the result of breeding work done in the late 1940’s by Dr. Les Kerr at Canada’s Morden Research Centre in Manitoba and later as director of the PFRA Tree Nursery in Saskatoon (now Forestry Farm Park). Kerr was working to breed dwarf, cold hardy sour cherries that would survive and be productive in the harsh climate of Canada’s prairies. His work focused on hybrids developed by crossing Prunus cerasus (sour cherry) and Prunus fruticosa (Mongolian cherry).

Fresh Cherries

Kerr donated the germplasm developed during his years of research to the University of Saskatchewan, where the research continues today under the leadership of Assistant Professor Bob Bors.

Cultivars of shrub cherries

A number of named cultivars have been selected, including ‘Carmine Jewel,’ and the Romance Series: ‘Romeo,’ ‘Juliet,’ ‘Cupid,’ ‘Valentine’ and ‘Crimson Passion.’ You may find that Prunus tomentosa, Nanking cherry, is included with hybrid bush cherries in some catalogs, but according to a 1989 Cornell University publication, “descriptions that emphasize its value for fresh fruit for the home gardener are exaggerated.” Nanking cherry is mainly grown as a tough, hardy ornamental shrub.


Space Requirements in the Garden

Bush cherries range in size from four to eight feet tall with a similar spread, depending on the cultivar. They can be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub or trained to a single trunk as best suits your landscape style and available space. Yields average 20-25 pounds per plant, and the fruit is much sweeter than its sour cherry heritage may lead you to believe. Although bush cherries typically do not require cross-pollination for fruit set, planting two or more cultivars increases productivity.

Growing Conditions

Bush cherries grow best in full sun and well-drained, average garden soil. They are tolerant of clay soils as long as they drain well. In addition to producing delicious fruit, these shrubs boast pretty flowers in spring and dark green, clean foliage that make them attractive ornamental plants. Bush cherries should produce a small crop in their third year, and you may be surprised at how much production jumps the following year.

Pests... like birds

While growers in Canada report few pest problems, it seems reasonable that some of the same pests that trouble standard cherry growers will cause problems with bush cherries, especially birds. At least shrubs are easier to cover with netting than trees are.


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