California is known for a number of tasty cherry varieties, but breeders constantly are searching for new, improved selections.

The season kicks off in Southern California, with brooks and then tulare and coral varieties. The popular bing cherries come along as the deal expands to the northern part of the state.

California also produces some garnet, rainier and chelan cherries, and some growers offer proprietary varieties like Sequoia, Trinity and Yosemite varieties.

First introduction coming

International Fruit Genetics, Bakersfield, Calif., is in the process of patenting and releasing its first cherry variety, said David Cain, general manager.

The as yet unnamed cherry is a bit larger than brooks but with darker flesh and similar eating quality, he said. Timing also is similar to brooks.

The patent application should be completed by May, and trees should be available within the next year or so.

The company also is testing some extremely low-chill varieties and some early-ripening types — some of which come off three weeks before brooks, he said. But commercial plantings are at least three years away.

Bigger and sweeter

BQ Genetics, Le Grand, Calif., typically sees 3,000 hybrids per year that have the potential for producing new varieties, says partner Glen Bradford.

The company, which developed the tulare and Sequoia varieties, always is looking for something “bigger, earlier, firmer and sweeter,” he said.

BQ Genetics tests 20 to 30 varieties a year at the Warmerdam Packing LLC test site in Hanford, Calif., where El Capitan — a firm cherry with high brix and good stem attachment — looks promising.

Most of BQ’s efforts are aimed at stone fruit, however. Cherries account for a small but important part of its work, Bradford said.

45-year history

Zaiger’s Genetics, Modesto, Calif., has been developing cherry varieties since Floyd Zaiger established the family-owned company 45 years ago, said his daughter, Leith Gardner.

“We have a few new varieties that seem to be working well commercially,” she said.

The company produces some low-chilling cherries as well as some standard varieties.

Royal tioga, royal lynn and royal hazel all are low-chilling, early blooming selections that ripen ahead of brooks.

Some are grown in the Bakersfield area and need special care to ensure that they do not produce too many doubles or spurs, she said.

“The royal tioga especially needs a little more tender loving care in the Bakersfield area,” she said.
“But up here (in Modesto) it’s fine.”

The royal anseo is a higher-chill selection and can grow anywhere bings can grow, but it ripens earlier than bings and has “really nice size and firmness.”

Royal edie and royal helen varieties are large cherries that come off after bings.

“They seem to be doing really well,” Gardner said.

Zaiger’s Genetics licenses its cherry selections to Dave Wilson Nursery, Hickman, Calif.

California’s cherry industry has transformed over the past three decades, Bradford said.

The tulare

Thirty years ago, there were virtually no cherries growing south of Modesto.

Then, with the tulare, which BQ Genetics developed, and the brooks from the University of California, that all changed.

“It opened up a whole new addition to the industry,” he said.

The early season is especially significant because the first cherries out of the south can sell for $100-200 per box, while those that come off later in the north sell for $30 to $40 per box, he said.

The emphasis is on developing early varieties that don’t show doubling or cracking the following year, he said.

Eventually, lower-chill varieties may be discovered that thrive in warmer regions of Southern California or Mexico, enabling the season to be extended even longer, Cain said.

Cherries are one of the few fruits that are not available year-round, so breeders are working to get as close to year-round production as possible using various growing areas, he said.