Tucked in the shadow of Mount Hood, on hillsides overlooking the Columbia River, grow some of the finest sweet cherries in the world. The mountain blocks most of the rain that blows in from the west, protecting the cherries from weather that would otherwise split and soften the fruit. Although there have been cherry orchards here in The Dalles for generations, the industry has changed, and so have the cherries.
For one thing, there’s more profit in fresh cherries now. A generation ago, the industry centered on the sugary, lipstick-red concoction called the maraschino. Not a pick-from-the-tree variety, the maraschino was originally created from marasca, a small black cherry that grew wild on the coast of present-day Croatia. To preserve them, the ancients pickled the cherries in seawater then marinated them in a liqueur made from the marasca’s juice and pits. A taste for the marinated marascas soon drifted beyond the Croatian shores, and variations on the original recipe flourished.
By the early 1900s, maraschinos were decorating cocktails and topping off ice-cream sundaes and glazed hams. But they were still made with European cherries, because it was said that American cherries were just too soft.
Then came Ernest Wiegand, a horticulturist who joined the faculty of Oregon Agricultural College in 1919, who labored for a decade to perfect a new maraschino cherry made from Oregon’s Royal Anne cherries. The secret, it seems, was in the brine. The Croatians had used seawater; so Weigand added a dash of calcium salts to firm the cherries and a dash of almond extract to simulate the taste of marasca pits.
Processing maraschino cherries became a big industry in Oregon during the mid-20th century. The nation’s two biggest maraschino manufacturers are still right here in Oregon. But tastes change, and demand has softened for a cherry that has been bleached white then dyed red, impregnated with sugar, and packed in an almond-flavored syrup.
Today, Oregon growers are tearing out their Royal Annes and replanting with fresh sweet cherry varieties that are in high demand in export markets in Asia and Europe. But being a player in a global market is not always just a bowl of cherries.
Northwest sweet cherry production is trending upward, according to Lynn Long, an OSU Extension horticulturist who works with cherry growers in The Dalles area. The acreage has almost doubled in the past decade, with 300 to 400 trees per acre compared to 58 per acre just a few years ago.
Cherry production is on the upswing globally. China has increased its production almost fourfold since the mid-1990s, Long said. Cherry production in Chile is also on the rise, thanks in part to off-season imports into the U.S.
To compete, Oregon cherry growers are lengthening the season with new varieties that either ripen early (Chelan) or late (Sweetheart) to help get Oregon cherries on the market longer and help improve the overall price.
Growing sweet cherries for the fresh market demands a strategic understanding of international trade, consumer preferences, and state-of-the-art horticulture in addition to a sweet place on the sunny side of the mountain.
Bing cherries are an American favorite. But who was Bing?
Back in 1847, before Oregon was a state, an Iowa entrepreneur named Henderson Luelling traveled to Oregon with a wagon full of fruit tree seedlings and, in effect, delivered the tree fruit industry to the West. Henderson’s younger brother, Seth followed in 1850, settling in Milwaukie, Oregon, where he established a commercial tree fruit nursery (and curiously, changed the spelling of his name.)
According to the Oregon Historical Society, Ah Bing was Seth Lewelling’s Manchurian foreman who oversaw 30 Chinese farm workers and helped run the nursery. Accounts differ as to whether it was Seth or Bing who developed the large black sweet cherry variety, but the Bing cherry was developed at the Lewelling nursery and named in honor of the Chinese foreman.
That recognition is especially notable at a time when some Americans felt threatened by the growing presence of Chinese laborers in the workforce. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 halted immigration from China and sanctioned the deportation of legal residents. Any Chinese Americans who left the country had to obtain stringent certification to re-enter. Bing worked for Seth for 35 years, the length of his contract, and in 1889 he returned to China. He did not return to the United States.
But the cherry he helped to cultivate is still today the most produced variety of sweet cherry in the U.S.