Text Laurian Brown Garden Editor René Slee Photographs Athol Moult When it comes to choosing fruit, human beings are no different from birds. Eye appeal comes first, taste next. Dewy and bite-sized, followed by sweet and juicy, these qualities make cherries an all-time summer favourite. No tree or fruit shines as brightly in literature, rhyme, folklore and everyday English idiom, usually in association with a rare or special treat. The reasons are fairly simple: one, the sheer beauty of the cherry tree, both in blossom and in fruit. Two, the fact that the seasons are so brief. The blossom is over in a week and the fruit does not keep or travel well, so it must be enjoyed while fresh – ideally straight from the tree. Hence the lively and certainly ancient tradition of the cherry fair. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable gives us an insight: ‘Cherry fairs: cherry orchards where sales of fruit were held, such gatherings frequently becoming boisterous,’ adding that ‘Their temporary character caused them to be used to typify the evanescence of life.’ Market forces, which are determined that everything should always be available every day and everywhere, are working on that one. ‘The season’s too short,’ explains Ceres grower Alan Garlick, ‘so breeders are trying not only to extend the fruiting season and the shelf life, but also to improve the cherry’s adaptability to various climates.’ Cherry trees require long periods of cold weather to bear well; no surprise, then, that South Africa’s cherry orchards are largely confined to the southeastern Free State and the Ceres valley in the Western Cape, areas that receive regular blanketings of snow. But even in our coldest areas, cherries remain a high-risk crop. Scorching sun, hail and heavy rain (which causes the fruit to split) make the harvest unpredictable, particularly in unprotected orchards. Nevertheless, local cherry production is growing by the year, hand in hand with local and overseas demand. From the 150 tonnes produced in 2006–7, the harvest rose to 380 tonnes in 2009–10. Some 71 per cent went to the local fresh produce market, 17 per cent for processing and 12 per cent was exported, according to Hortgro Services (which is responsible for operational industry services for SA’s deciduous fruit industry). And there’s every expectation that this year’s harvest will be a bumper one.
From about the third week in November you can pick your own cherries at Klondyke Cherry Farm near Ceres. Choose from 14 varieties of sweet cherry and three of sour cherry, bring a picnic and spend the whole day on the farm. ‘It makes a wonderful day out for families,’ says farm owner Alan Garlick, whose father began growing cherries here in the 1960s. There’s an entrance fee of R15 for adults, half-price for children under 12. And if you want to sleep over, there are also two fully equipped self-catering cottages and a large farmhouse as well as a campsite. The Cherry Festival held in and around Ficksburg in the Free State in November makes a whole weekend of the celebrations. There are musical events and organised tours where you can pick cherries and explore the many other attractions of this beautiful landscape, including visits to nearby Lesotho.
There are two kinds of cherry – sweet and sour. Sweet cherries are derived mainly from Prunus avium and may be red, black or yellow. There are numerous cultivars, all of which, until the late 20th century, required cross-pollination. This involved planting at least five trees, most of which would grow to a magnificent size, so cherries were not a proposition for a small garden. Breeders have now succeeded in growing trees on dwarf rootstock, which has reduced the size of the tree and at the same time improved bearing. They have also developed self-fertilising varieties such as ‘Stella’, ‘Van’, ‘Sunburst’ and ‘Lapins’, but these must be given time (at least six or seven years) to bear fruit. Sweet cherries may be eaten fresh or cooked, but sour cherries are always cooked (in sweet and savoury dishes), or made into preserves or liqueurs such as the famous Kirschwasser. Sour cherries are derived from Prunus cerasus and include the famous ‘Morello’ and ‘Montmorency’ types. They are self-fertilising, more easily grown and make beautiful trees for domestic gardens, both in blossom and fruit. If you live in a cold part of the country, particularly on the highveld, and you have space in your garden, it’s well worth planting your own cherry trees. For detailed advice read the section on growing your own cherries on the Cherry Festival website.
At Constantia Farm near Clocolan in the Free State the Higgo family has been growing cherries since 1953. Gerrit Higgo took over the farm in 1982 and has concentrated on cherry production, now supplying Pick n Pay and the Spar group throughout the country. His wife, Gwynet, a domestic-science graduate, has developed a superb range of cherry products that includes cherry liqueur, cherry jam, cherry chutney, cherry ice-cream topping and cherry nectar, the production of which provides much-needed employment for local women. A stopover at her Constantia Cherry Farm Stall on the R69 between Clocolan and Clarens is a must. Here you can buy these products and enjoy a cherry smoothie or other treats (such as milk-tart pancakes with cherry sauce) in the coffee shop. All varietals of cherry are very good for you. Sour cherries are particularly rich in vitamins A and C and anthocyanins, which are powerful antioxidants. Gwynet’s latest product is a 100 per cent cherry juice, a sugar-free immune-system booster that is also excellent for combating gout. ‘Cherries are also very ‘green’ in the eco sense,’ explains Gerrit. ‘Because they are such an early crop, they require very little spraying. Before the pests wake up, the cherry season’s over.’ Cherry Festival cherryfestival.co.za; Gerrit Higgo, 051-943-7180; Klondyke Cherry Farm, cherryfarm.co.za. This article was originally featured in the November 2010 House & Leisure .