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For generations, there was no such thing as a dwarf cherry tree. Instead, cherry trees came in one size only, and that size was "large." Cherry trees can be huge, up to three stories high. But if you have a small garden and no space for a full sized tree, what can you do?
Today, you’re spoiled for choice. You can invest in a dwarf sweet cherry tree that has been grafted onto dwarfing rootstock. Or you can opt for an easy-care sour cherry shrub. I’ll talk about both of those options in this blog.
If you live in a cold climate, a dwarf cherry shrub may be the best option. Back in the 1940s, a breeder in Saskatchewan called Dr. Les Kerr started to develop compact sour cherry trees that would grow in a shrub-like form. When he died, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan took over and continued to work on these plants until they were really happy with the taste of the fruit.
The team introduced their first dwarf cherry shrub, Carmine Jewel, in 1999. They followed up in 2004 with the introduction of "The Romance Series of Cherries" including cultivars named Romeo, Juliet, Crimson Passion, Valentine, and Cupid. These multi-stemmed trees will grow up to 8 feet tall (2.5 meters) and they produce sour cherries that are perfect for cooking, baking and preserving. Some are delicious for fresh eating as well.
What is special about this series of cherry shrubs is that they can be grown in very cold climates where other cherry trees will not survive. In episode 7 of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast Dr. Bob Bors of the University of Saskatchewan talks about their dwarf cherry shrub breeding program.
Sour cherry shrubs are terrific if you’re interested in growing cherries for cooking and processing and if you live in a cool climate. But if you want sweet cherries for fresh eating and you live in a warmer climate (Hardiness Zone 5 and up) you may opt instead for a dwarf cherry tree.
Dwarf cherry trees are available from specialist fruit tree nurseries. Choose your favourite variety (like Bing, Lapins, Ranier) and ask the nursery to graft it onto dwarfing rootstock. You can learn more about that in this article about grafting fruit trees.
Different rootstocks contribute different characteristics to the tree, like disease resistance or increased hardiness. But one of the important features is that dwarfing rootstocks will limit the size of the tree when mature.
So if you live in a warmer climate (Hardiness Zone 5 and up), you can choose to grow either sour cherry shrubs or dwarf sweet cherry trees. In a colder climate (Hardiness Zone 2, 3 or 4) you'll have less choice and should opt for a sour cherry shrub.
But what if you don't like sour-tasting fruit? Just because these shrubs are classified as "sour cherries" doesn't mean they don't taste great fresh! The term relates to the taxonomy or scientific classification of the plant rather than the flavour of the fruit.
You see, both sour and sweet cherries are in the genus of Prunus, which also includes other stone fruits like apricots and almonds. Sour cherries (Prunus cerasus) and sweet cherries (Prunus avium) are different species and they have different and unique characteristics.
Sour cherry trees (Prunus cerasus) are usually smaller than sweet cherry trees (Prunus avium). Sour cherry fruit is also smaller, darker in colour when ripe and the fruit grows on shorter stalks. So rather than assuming that the cherries on your sour cherry shrub will be tart, be sure to read the variety description to learn more about the flavour of the fruit.
Before you make your choice about whether to plant a dwarf cherry tree or a cherry shrub in your garden, consider learning more about the different options. I cover both topics in more depth in episodes 7 and 14 of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast.
You can learn more about how to select a dwarf cherry tree that will thrive in your unique conditions in two of my online courses, Researching Fruit Trees for Organic Growing Success or Certificate in Fruit Tree Care. When you’re ready to shop around and buy a dwarf cherry tree, download my fruit tree nursery resource list to find a nursery that will provide you with exactly the type of cherry you would like to grow in your small garden.
So, dwarf cherry tree or cherry shrub? It's up to you. Which will you choose?
Susan Poizner is an urban orchardist in Toronto, Canada and the author of Grow Fruit Trees Fast and Growing Urban Orchards. Susan trains new growers worldwide through her award-winning fruit tree care training program at Orchardpeople.com. Susan is also the host of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast and an ISA Certified Arborist.