Commercial cherries are obtained from cultivars of several species, such as the sweet Prunus avium and the sour Prunus cerasus. The name 'cherry' also refers to the cherry tree and its wood, and is sometimes applied to almonds and visually similar flowering trees in the genus Prunus, as in "ornamental cherry" or "cherry blossom". Wild cherry may refer to any of the cherry species growing outside cultivation, although Prunus avium is often referred to specifically by the name "wild cherry" in the British Isles.
Many cherries are allied to the subgenus Prunus subg. Cerasus, which is distinguished by having the flowers in small corymbs of several together (not singly, nor in racemes), and by having smooth fruit with only a weak groove along one side, or no groove. The subgenus is native to the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with two species in America, three in Europe, and the remainder in Asia. Other cherry fruits are borne on racemes and called bird cherries.
The English word cherry derives from Old Northern French or Norman cherise from the Latin cerasum, referring to an ancient Greek region, Kerasous (Κερασοῦς) near Giresun, Turkey, from which cherries were first thought to be exported to Europe. The indigenous range of the sweet cherry extends through most of Europe, western Asia, and parts of northern Africa, and the fruit has been consumed throughout its range since prehistoric times. A cultivated cherry is recorded as having been brought to Rome by Lucius Licinius Lucullus from northeastern Anatolia, also known as the Pontus region, in 72 BC.
Cherries arrived in North America early in the settlement of Brooklyn, New York (then called "New Netherland") when the region was under Dutch sovereignty. Trades people leased or purchased land to plant orchards and produce gardens, "Certificate of Corielis van Tienlioven that he had found 12 apple, 40 peach, 73 cherry trees, 26 sage plants.., behind the house sold by Anthony Jansen from Salee [Morocco, Africa] to Barent Dirksen [Dutchmen],... ANNO 18th of June 1639."
The cultivated forms are of the species sweet cherry (P. avium) to which most cherry cultivars belong, and the sour cherry (P. cerasus), which is used mainly for cooking. Both species originate in Europe and western Asia; they usually do not cross-pollinate. Some other species, although having edible fruit, are not grown extensively for consumption, except in northern regions where the two main species will not grow. Irrigation, spraying, labor, and their propensity to damage from rain and hail make cherries relatively expensive. Nonetheless, demand is high for the fruit. In commercial production, sour cherries, as well as sweet cherries sometimes, are harvested by using a mechanized 'shaker'. Hand picking is also widely used for sweet as well as sour cherries to harvest the fruit to avoid damage to both fruit and trees.
Common rootstocks include Mazzard, Mahaleb, Colt, and Gisela Series, a dwarfing rootstock that produces trees significantly smaller than others, only 8 to 10 feet (2.5 to 3 meters) tall. Sour cherries require no pollenizer, while few sweet varieties are self-fertile.
A cherry tree will take three to four years once it's planted in the orchard to produce its first crop of fruit, and seven years to attain full maturity.
Like most temperate-latitude trees, cherry trees require a certain number of chilling hours each year to break dormancy and bloom and produce fruit. The number of chilling hours required depends on the variety. Because of this cold-weather requirement, no members of the genus Prunus can grow in tropical climates. (See "production" section for more information on chilling requirements)
Cherries have a short growing season and can grow in most temperate latitudes. Cherries blossom in April (in the Northern Hemisphere) and the peak season for the cherry harvest is in the summer. In southern Europe in June, in North America in June, in England in mid-July, and in southern British Columbia (Canada) in June to mid-August. In many parts of North America, they are among the first tree fruits to flower and ripen in mid-Spring.
In the Southern Hemisphere, cherries are usually at their peak in late December and are widely associated with Christmas. 'Burlat' is an early variety which ripens during the beginning of December, 'Lapins' ripens near the end of December, and 'Sweetheart' finish slightly later.
Generally, the cherry can be a difficult fruit tree to grow and keep alive. In Europe, the first visible pest in the growing season soon after blossom (in April in western Europe) usually is the black cherry aphid ("cherry blackfly", Myzus cerasi), which causes leaves at the tips of branches to curl, with the blackfly colonies exuding a sticky secretion which promotes fungal growth on the leaves and fruit. At the fruiting stage in June/July (Europe), the cherry fruit fly (Rhagoletis cingulata and Rhagoletis cerasi) lays its eggs in the immature fruit, whereafter its larvae feed on the cherry flesh and exit through a small hole (about 1 mm diameter), which in turn is the entry point for fungal infection of the cherry fruit after rainfall. In addition, cherry trees are susceptible to bacterial canker, cytospora canker, brown rot of the fruit, root rot from overly wet soil, crown rot, and several viruses.
In 2014, world production of sweet cherries was 2.25 million tonnes, with Turkey producing 20% of this total. Other major producers of sweet cherries were the United States and Iran. World production of sour cherries in 2014 was 1.36 million tonnes, led by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and Poland.
In France since the 1920s, the first cherries of the season come in April/May from the region of Céret (Pyrénées-Orientales), where the local producers send, as a tradition since 1932, the first crate of cherries to the president of the Republic.
In the United States, most sweet cherries are grown in Washington, California, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Important sweet cherry cultivars include Bing, Ulster, Rainier, Brooks, Tulare, King, and Sweetheart. Both Oregon and Michigan provide light-colored 'Royal Ann' ('Napoleon'; alternately 'Queen Anne') cherries for the maraschino cherry process. Most sour (also called tart) cherries are grown in Michigan, followed by Utah, New York, and Washington. Sour cherries include 'Nanking' and 'Evans'. Traverse City, Michigan is called the "Cherry Capital of the World", hosting a National Cherry Festival and making the world's largest cherry pie. The specific region of northern Michigan known for tart cherry production is referred to as the "Traverse Bay" region.
Most cherry varieties have a chilling requirement of 800 or more hours, meaning that in order to break dormancy, blossom, and set fruit, the winter season needs to have at least 800 hours where the temperature is below 45 °F (7 °C). “Low chill” varieties requiring 300 hours or less are Minnie Royal and Royal Lee, requiring cross-pollinization, whereas the cultivar, Royal Crimson, is self-fertile. These varieties extend the range of cultivation of cherries to the mild winter areas of southern US. This is a boon to California producers of sweet cherries, as California is the second largest producer of sweet cherries in the US.
Native and non-native sweet cherries grow well in Canada's provinces of Ontario and British Columbia where an annual cherry festival has been celebrated for seven consecutive decades in the Okanagan Valley town of Osoyoos. In addition to the Okanagan, other British Columbia cherry growing regions are the Similkameen Valley and Kootenay Valley, all three regions together producing 5.5 million kg annually or 60% of total Canadian output. Sweet cherry varieties in British Columbia include 'Rainier', 'Van', 'Chelan', 'Lapins', 'Sweetheart', 'Skeena', 'Staccato', 'Christalina' and 'Bing'.
In Australia, cherries are grown in all the states except for the Northern Territory. The major producing regions are located in the temperate areas within New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. Western Australia has limited production in the elevated parts in the southwest of the state. Key production areas include Young, Orange and Bathurst in New South Wales, Wandin, the Goulburn and Murray valley areas in Victoria, the Adelaide Hills region in South Australia, and the Huon and Derwent Valleys in Tasmania.
Key commercial varieties in order of seasonality include 'Empress', 'Merchant', 'Supreme', 'Ron's seedling', 'Chelan', 'Ulster', 'Van', 'Bing', 'Stella', 'Nordwunder', 'Lapins', 'Simone', 'Regina', 'Kordia' and 'Sweetheart'. New varieties are being introduced, including the late season 'Staccato' and early season 'Sequoia'. The Australian Cherry Breeding program is developing a series of new varieties which are under testing evaluation.
The New South Wales town of Young is called the "Cherry Capital of Australia" and hosts the National Cherry Festival.
Raw sweet cherries are 82% water, 16% carbohydrates, 1% protein, and negligible in fat (table). As raw fruit, sweet cherries provide little nutrient content per 100 g serving, as only dietary fiber and vitamin C are present in moderate content, while other vitamins and dietary minerals each supply less than 10% of the Daily Value (DV) per serving, respectively (table).
The list below contains many Prunus species that bear the common name cherry, but they are not necessarily members of the subgenus Cerasus, or bear edible fruit. For a complete list of species, see List of Prunus species. Some common names listed here have historically been used for more than one species, e.g. "rock cherry" is used as an alternative common name for both P. prostrata and P. mahaleb and "wild cherry" is used for several species.