Dormant Nanking bush cherry
Description and site preference
Type and size – spreading shrub or small tree, 9-15 feet high and wide unpruned
Hardiness zone – 3-6 (possibly 2-7)
Exposure – full sun to partial shade
Soil – all but poorly drained soils
Drainage – moderate to good
Years to harvest – 1-2
Maintenance – low to medium
Life of planting – 50 years or more with maintenance pruning
Machine harvest potential – high
Suitable markets – fresh or processed
Nanking bush cherry starting to bloom
Nutritional highlights – unknown (probably similar to other tart cherries)
Adaptability – highly adaptable in most all soils
Pest issues – few noted
Invasive potential – none, naturalized since 1882
Environmental benefits – early bloom builds up pollinator population for other plants, grafted stock make good dynamic accumulators of minerals
Shared management – high with other bush, shrub and cane fruits
Shared equipment – high, could share most equipment, probably even mechanical harvester
Shared processing – intermediate to high, may need specialized equipment for pit removal
Co-marketing – intermediate to high, processed similar to many other fruits, fresh sales would require special handling
Integration potential – good
A companion crop with beneficial ecological characteristics. Economic sustainability has yet to be determined.
History and background
Nanking Cherry is native to central Asia; adapted to cold, semi-arid regions; and the most common fruit plant in gardens in the Russian Far East. It was introduced to North America in 1882. Pomologists in that era spoke highly of this plant’s potential. It was featured in the Yearbook of Agriculture 1937 as a plant with unusual opportunities in plant breeding by acclaimed breeder Dr. George Darrow. Like many uncommon fruit, the genetic potential has remained untapped, probably because it did not fit requirements in a globalized marketing system reliant on long supply chains. “Nanking Cherry fruits are poor commercial fruits because they are too soft for shipping and have a short shelf life,” said Lee Reich in Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden. Fortunately there has been some breeding. Russian breeders have made selections and developed hybrids with other Prunus species. The largest commercial plantations are in Russia.
Nanking cherries are enjoyed eaten fresh, and the juice makes a refreshing drink and a beautiful, clear jelly. The fruit can also be used as any other tart cherry, but because of their smaller size (about ½ inch across), pitting is more time consuming.
Observations at Carandale Farm
Carandale’s Nanking cherry plants were ordered from St. Lawrence Nurseries in 2010. They transplanted well, were slow to establish and are doing well as of 2013. Carandale has two plants (for cross pollination). They bore some fruit in 2012, but not enough for a fair evaluation. The flavor was similar to a tart tree cherry, but the fruit was softer and more delicate. No disease or insect damage has occurred, but two years is not enough time to draw conclusions.
Nanking cherry was added to the Carandale test plot to evaluate it as an alternative to regular tart cherries borne on trees. Cherries borne on shrubs would be easier to manage and have lower overhead cost if they could be harvested mechanically. It will be a number of years before Carandale can evaluate the potential of Nanking cherries as an economically sustainable component of an integrated cropping system.
Ultimate economic success will require more emphasis on exploring the genetic potential of Nanking cherry, referred to so long ago. Variation within the species will provide opportunity for selective breeding of regionally adapted cultivars with uniform fruit quality and good fresh market appeal. Selected cultivars grafted onto seedling rootstock develop a taproot that reaches deep within the soil. This would be a valuable dynamic accumulator for retrieving minerals not readily available to shallow-rooted plants within the system. Minerals are shared with other species primarily by leaf fall.
Nanking cherry could be subject to the usual pests of Prunus, such as plum curculio and brown rot, but these have not been reported as a serious problem and should be even less so in an integrated system.