Taken at face value, Prunus might be assumed to have something to do with prunes. However, in actuality, all stone fruits are members of the Prunus genus.Of course, plums (and future prunes) are members of the genus, but Prunus avium and Prunus cerasus happen to be cherries.
Cherries are unusual among foods in having their point of origin described as an entire hemisphere—the northern one. Since prehistoric times, cherries have grown across Europe, Asia, and North America. It seems that most of the cultivated species came from western Asia and eastern Europe, but there were varieties everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, waiting to be crossbred. Unusual among domesticated plant foods with long histories, the wild precursors of cultivated cherries have not been lost, and in fact have not been abandoned. Wild cherries still enjoy wide popularity.
While the use of wild cherries stretches back through prehistory, the cultivation of cherries is believed to date to about 300 b.c. Our word cherry comes from the Turkish town of Cerasus, seen unchanged in the name of one species of cherry. This reflects the western Asian origin of cherry cultivation—and Turkey is, in fact, still one of the planet’s top producers of cherries. Like several other words (for example, pease and eaves, likely to soon be joined by kudos), the nearest linguistic ancestor of the English word—cherise—sounded too much like it was plural, and in time was “singularized” to cherry.
The Roman Empire being what it was—an absorber of all it liked from wherever it went—it is probably not too surprising that Italy became a major cherry grower during the time of the Empire. Pliny attributes the introduction of cherries in the Empire to the Roman general Lucullus, famous both as a warrior and a gastronome. However, it seems likely that Lucullus probably simply introduced a new species of cultivated cherry when he returned from fighting in Asia Minor. The only uncertainty in that introduction (was Lucullus the first or not) lies in the fact that, while we know that there were cherries being cultivated in Italy by the time of Lucullus (who lived from 117 or 118 b.c. to around 56 b.c.), we also know that cultivation was a relatively new thing in the Mediterranean at this point, as the Greeks wrote only of wild cherries, which they didn’t particularly like. So it could be that what Lucullus introduced was the cultivated cherry.
Cherries favor temperate regions. While they don’t like it too frigid, they won’t bloom at all without a cold winter. And for some species of cherry, it’s all about blooming. Almost none of the ornamental species favored in Asia, and most particularly Japan, bear fruit, or if they do bear fruit, it is inedible. They are grown entirely for their beautiful flowers. It is from among these purely decorative Japanese species that Washington, D. C. got its famous blossoming cherries (and, unfortunately, it was from this same gift from Japan’s government that the Oriental fruit moth was introduced into the U.S.).
While there are many species of cherry, there are two main species that are grown for their fruit: sweet cherries (Prunus avium) and sour cherries (Prunus cerasus). In addition to there being two species that are commonly cultivated, there are also many varieties. Among sweet cherries, the Bing cherry is the most popular variety in the U.S., though the yellow-red Rainier cherry has been gaining traction in the marketplace in recent years. (But if you want to search, there are still many more sweet cherries to try—or to grow, if you have the space and the climate.)
In addition, there are cherries known as dukes, which are crosses between sweet and sour cherries. (The Germans call dukes Bastardkirschen.) Sweet cherries are heart-shaped, range in color from purplish black to red to golden, and include all the common eating cherries.
Sour cherries are smaller, softer, and more spherical than sweet cherries. They are also known as tart cherries, cooking cherries, and pie cherries. About 75 percent of all sour cherries are grown in Michigan.
While some people do enjoy eating sour cherries fresh, most people agree that they benefit from cooking, usually with sugar. But they are wonderfully flavorful in a wide range of applications—and if you’re eating any pastry with cherries, it will most certainly be sour cherries that you’re enjoying.