How to Grow Sweet Cherry Trees

Sweet cherry tree in blossom with blue sky

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The sweet cherry (Prunus avium) is a fruiting deciduous tree that can grow to be up to 20 meters tall. It's also often referred to as the wild cherry.

The fruit the tree produces is edible, and the timber is highly sought after. It's the cultivated forms of the tree, however, that commercially available cherries are harvested from. The wild tree fruit tends to be smaller and more bitter tasting.

Sweet cherry cultivars, with their pretty white spring blooms, are also the ones found in nurseries to plant for ornamental purposes in a garden, container, or orchard.

The trees are self-sterile, so, in orchards, they tend to be grown in groups to allow them to pollinate each other. Some self-fertile cultivars have now been developed, and these are ideal for individual ornamental specimens or for growing in containers.

Sweet cherry trees are often confused with their sour cherry (Prenus cerasus) relatives. Prunus avium, however, tends to be taller and has serrated foliage that has a hairy underside. Although wild sweet cherry fruit can be bitter, it isn't strongly acidic like the sour cherry fruit is.

Botanical Name Prunus avium
Common Name Sweet cherry, wild cherry, gean
Plant Type Deciduous tree
Mature Size Up to 20 meters
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial shade
Soil Type Moist but well-drained
Soil pH Tolerant of a wide variety, but prefers slightly acidic
Bloom Time Early spring
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 4 to 7, USDA
Native Area Asia, Africa, Europe
Toxicty Stems leaves and seeds toxic to humans and pets if ingested

How to Plant Sweet Cherry Trees

For bare-root sweet cherry trees, it is best to plant them out in spring or late fall. That way the ground is not as hard, it is naturally moister and the tree will be dormant.

They should be spaced at least 40 feet apart and away from other trees or structures to ensure good air circulation and too plenty of sun.

Dwarf trees will only need around ten feet of spacing between them and they can be grown in containers and potted up at any time of the year.

Sweet Cherry Tree Care

Sweet cherry trees enjoy sunny and sheltered positions where they'll still get good air circulation. They do best in rich, moist soils and don't appreciate extreme heat.

Light

These trees generally enjoy full sun, but in regions where the afternoon sun is extreme, it's best to put them in a partial shade position where they'll get respite from this.

Soil

A well-drained, loamy, fertile, and moist soil is what a sweet cherry tree will appreciate the most. These trees can handle a wide range of pH levels, but they have a preference for acidic conditions.

Water

Because they have shallow roots, dry periods can cause problems for sweet cherry trees and this is why a moisture retentive soil or at least mulching is beneficial.

Depending on how dry and warm the conditions are, watering every one to four weeks will be required. It's especially important not to let the roots dry out completely during the growing seasons.

Although sweet cherries like to be moist, they can't tolerate waterlogged soils.

Temperature and Humidity

Sweet cherry trees like temperate climates. If the conditions are too hot, the fruit on the tree may develop abnormally.

During the winter months, they need plenty of shade and 'chill hours' to ensure they'll produce a good display of blooms and fruit the following season. Extremely cold temperatures and late frosts, however, can result in the spring buds being damaged.

Fertilizer

Cherries are recognized as being heavy feeders. They'll benefit from an annual spring feed and one in the fall until they start bearing fruit. Established trees will generally only need to be fertilized after the harvest in the fall.

An organic fertilizer will work best. Too much nitrogen can contribute to problems with brown rot.

Blossoms of a Sweet Cherry Tree
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Are Sweet Cherry Trees Toxic?

While cherry fruit is edible, the seed, stem, and leaves contain cyanide and are toxic when ingested. It is particularly potent during the wilting process.

Cyanide toxicity can cause respiratory distress, muscle weakness, agitation, dilation of the pupils, seizures, comas, and even death in extreme cases.

The stones can also present a choking hazard for pets, so it is best to make sure that any scavenging dogs or cats don't have access to the trees.

Sweet Cherry Tree Varieties

Sweet Cherry Trees come in a wide selection of cultivars, many of which are dwarf types suitable for growing in containers. Some of the most popular or interesting varieties include:

  • Lapins - Semi-dwarf, self-fertile and produces a heavy crop of black fruits.
  • Piena - Produces clusters of dropping double white flowers but no fruit
  • Stella - Dwarf, self-pollinating type that produces dark red fruits

Harvesting Sweet Cherry Trees

Timing is crucial when harvesting sweet cherries. Too early and they will not be as sweet as they should be and too late and they will be overly soft. The last few days of ripening sees a significant increase in the sugar content within the fruit.

Unlike sour cherries, sweet cherries do not drop off the stem so readily when ripe, so you will need to look for them coming to full color and taste them before picking.

Be aware that cherries don't continue to ripen once they are off the tree, so don't be tempted to remove them too early.

Rain can cause splitting of the fruit, so, if possible, harvest before any heavy rainstorms.

Pruning

Sweet cherry trees benefit from annual pruning to encourage new growth. There are mixed opinions on when the best time to prune is. The general consensus is not to do it in the fall.

Some enthusiasts advocate for winter pruning, and others believe that doing it during this time period can increase the risk of the trees developing diseases like silver leaf or bacterial canker.

Early summer pruning, after the blooming period, is often carried out on established trees.

Propagating Sweet Cherry Trees

Although sweet cherry trees can be propagated from seed, cutting, or division, they're normally grafted onto a rootstock.

Grown naturally, these trees can become too large for home gardens, and it can take a long time for them to produce their first harvest.

Commons Pests/Diseases

Sweet cherry trees, unfortunately, can be susceptible to several diseases. Fungal diseases like leaf spot and rust can be controlled using foliar fungicides. Blight, canker, and powdery mildew can also be problematic. Good air circulation can help prevent some of these problems.