Cherry juice and cherries in drinking glasses.

You may think of them as a garnish for one of those “girly” drinks or as the topping on the whipped cream of your ice cream sundae, but cherries are more than decoration. An entire industry is centered around the production of the more than 1,000 types of cherries grown in the United States. We see the result of the growers’ efforts when the fresh varieties arrive in the supermarket from April to August. America’s historical fondness for cherries is reflected in its culture ‒ the cherry tree of George Washington legend, the cherry trees that burst in pink blooms every spring in Washington, D.C.’s tidal basin, and even in popular song ‒ Billy Boy’s longing for a wife who can “bake a cherry pie fast as a cat can wink an eye.”

Ranging in color from yellow to red to mahogany and with a taste that runs the gamut from eye-rolling sweet to tangy tart, fresh cherries, canned varieties, cherries packed in juice and candied cherries are all-American fruit sensations. But even with all the different types of cherries and the various varieties of cherries, a true cherry lover knows the difference between those sweet, sticky maraschino cherries kids love to eat and the regal flavor of pricey Rainier cherries.

Sweet Fresh Cherries

  • Chelan Cherries ‒ Almost black in color, small and round, the Chelan cherry is harvested in the Pacific Northwest. They’re the first cherry to hit the market the end of May to mid-June, and they have a sweetness similar to the popular Bing cherry.
  • Bing Cherries ‒ You’ll find them in the market starting toward the end of May and are at their sweetest in June and July. Production tapers off by August, and Bings sold after that date have most likely been sitting in cold storage for some time. Bing cherries are heart-shaped, plump and red to mahogany in color. They are also richly sweet. Named after an Oregon farmer’s Chinese farmhand, Bing cherries have been harvested in the region for over 100 years.
  • Lapins Cherries ‒ Blink and they’re gone. That’s how short the growing season is for this large, dark and very sweet cherry. If the Bing cherry is available in your market, know that the lapins will show up a few weeks later.
  • Rainier Cherries ‒ The reigning cherry, with a regal reputation, Rainier cherries, named after Washington’s Mt. Rainier, are the king of the crop. Immediately recognized by their yellow and red coloring, the large Rainier bursts sweetness when popped into the mouth. Late June through August finds them in the market, and they go fast. Be warned!

Savory Taste of Tart Cherries

Not all cherries are sweet. Some start sweet and leave a tart aftertaste, while others give you a good pucker at the first bite. Most tart cherries are brined, canned or used for baking where they’re mixed with sweeteners.

  • Balaton Cherries ‒ A good example of a two-dimensional cherry, the Balaton is one of the few cherries that is not native to America. Introduced by Hungarian growers, harvests are now being produced in Michigan. Dark burgundy in color, the sweet-tart taste and dark color are its identifying characteristics. But you’ll have to go to Michigan in late July‒August to sample them fresh. Some frozen products have begun to feature the Balaton.
  • Royal Anne/Maraschino Cherries ‒ They start out looking like Rainier cherries ‒ plump, round and yellow-red in color. But one bite gives them away ‒ they’re tart! The maraschino cherry is a Royal Anne that’s been soaked in a salt solution and then sweetened in a sugar syrup before being colored with red dye 40. Who’d a thunk it!
  • Morello Cherries ‒ Swimming in a sweet cherry juice, a jar of morello cherries is usually designated for baking or sauce-making. Reduce them down, and they become a rich topping for a crisp duck, and they’re the cherry in Billy Boy’s intended’s cherry pie in the famous song.
  • Montmorency Cherries ‒ The most versatile of the cherries, Montmorency cherries are found in health-food drinks and bakery products. They’re also the cherry in canned pie fillings. A juice is made of 100% cherry juice that’s promoted for its ability to ease muscle pain.