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Summer cherries’ Northwest roots grow back to the 1840s

Seth Luelling's home near Milwaukie, Oregon is the birthplace of the Pacific Northwest cherry industry, and the place where he created the "Bing" variety, perhaps with help from a Chinese man named Bing, in 1875. (Oregon Historical Society)

Nothing says summertime quite like the taste of cherries, and the Evergreen State’s role in the development of one famous variety is a story ripe for the picking.

Cherries mean summertime, and have in Washington for more than a century. The annual market value for Washington cherries is about $850 million; Washington is first, by far, as the number one sweet-cherry growing state in the United States.

James Michael is vice president of marketing for the Northwest Cherry Growers, representing member-growers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Montana. He knows his cherry history, and he also knows that the pandemic has made cherry season a little tougher than usual for growers this year.

“Cherries are 72% impulse,” Michael said from the Yakima Valley earlier this week. “Three out of every four cherries are sold in the U.S., and actually around the world.”

“They go into a supermarket, whether it’s in Korea or in Iowa, and they see fresh cherries and realize ‘Oh, it’s cherry season,’” Michael said. “It’s that emotional connection … that celebration of the season that leads them to make that purchase.”

The issue during the pandemic, Michael says, is that the short cherry season and the impulse purchase don’t quite translate online yet, though that could change in the future as algorithms improve and online grocery experiences adapt to new realities.

Even during a pandemic, the cherry industry is thriving in the Northwest and has been for decades. For this, we can thank three things: climate, irrigation, and a family of settlers from the Midwest, the Luellings.

Before Henderson Luelling headed west to the Oregon Country in 1847, he built containers – big portable wooden planters – that were deep enough to contain a foot of soil and big enough to fit as many as 700 plants and trees ranging from a few inches in height to fully four feet tall.

Luelling put all of this – the planters, the soil, and all those hundreds of plants – in a covered wagon. Then, he hitched it to a team of oxen and headed west.

James Michael says the Luelling family settled in the Willamette Valley, north of Oregon City, which was then the largest community in what’s now Oregon.

They “came out on the Oregon Trail and set up shop in the Milwaukie area, and started a nursery” with that wagonload of plants and trees, Michael said.

In an 1879 speech to the Oregon Pioneer Association, a farmer and politician named Ralph C. Geer spoke in glowing words about Henderson Luelling and the “Traveling Nursery.”

If a man is a benefactor to his race who makes two spears of grass grow where only one grew before, what is he to his State, who makes luscious pears, cherries, plums and apples grow, where only poor seedlings or none, grew before. Mr. Henderson Luelling, by bringing that splendid assortment of apples, pears, plums, cherries, quinces, grapes, berries and flowers in his ‘Traveling Nursery’ to Oregon in 1847, gave to Oregon the name of ‘God’s country, or the Land of Big Red Apples,’ a name that every Pioneer of Oregon feels proud of.

If Geer’s speechifying is to be believed, the Luelling nursery played a significant role in the development of agriculture in the Willamette Valley, and the entire Beaver State.

That load of trees contained health, wealth and comfort, for the Old Pioneers of Oregon. It was the mother of all our early nurseries and orchards, and gave Oregon a name and fame that she never would have had without it. That load of living trees and shrubs brought more wealth to Oregon than any ship that ever entered the Columbia River. Then, I say, hail, all hail to the ‘Traveling Nursery’ that crossed the plains in 1847.

And it was at the family’s non-traveling nursery in Milwaukie in 1875, where Henderson Luelling’s brother Seth bred the first Bing cherry hybrid by cross-pollinating blossoms from two different existing varieties.

The result was a tree that produced dark red and sweet cherries that were durable enough to ship. The Luellings called the cherry “Bing” to honor a Chinese man – sometimes listed as Ah Bing or Sam Bing – who worked for them, and who may have helped create the hybrid.

From that nursery in the Willamette Valley, the Bing cherry caught on and eventually dominated commercial growing and canning of sweet cherries for most of the 20th century. It wasn’t the only variety of cherry available to consumers, but it became one of the most popular.

Fast-forward to post-World War II, and agricultural and commercial food production was changing and becoming more science-based and industrialized. A scientist named Harold Fogle was working at a Washington State University facility in Prosser at the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center. The center had been founded in 1919, and was originally created to help identify best practices for farming in the then newly-irrigated Yakima Valley.

James Michael says that in 1952, Harold Fogle crossed two varieties of cherries – the Luelling’s Bing and another dark red cherry called a Van – to try and create a third.

“We all know the Bing cherry as a dark red cherry, with a dark red center, and the Van is very similar. It’s a little softer, so you don’t see it in the grocery stores often, but it … has really good flavor,” Michael said. “But [Harold Fogle] made a cross between those two and, lo and behold, it actually came up with a yellow skin, a yellow-fleshed cherry that kind of blushed when it is exposed to sun.”

Dr. Per McCord is an associate professor at Washington State University. He runs the breeding program at the same lab in Prosser where Harold Fogle once worked. McCord says the cherry Fogle created is all about the genetics.

“Some genes are dominant, some genes are recessive,” Dr. McCord said. “The gene for red skin and flesh is dominant, so you only need one copy to see it [in an offspring]. But that means that there is still yellow-flesh genes in that gene pool, and both parents are carrying that, then some of your offspring are going to be yellow flesh cherries.”

At the WSU lab in Prosser back in the 1950s, the new cherry, first known as “P 1-680,” was not an overnight success. A catchier name might’ve helped, and that would come, but not for a few years.

And, whatever the color of the cherry and whatever it might eventually be named, creating hybrids takes patience.

McCord says it took months for Harold Fogle to get seeds from the blossoms he crossed back in the early 1950s.  It then took as long as four or five years to grow trees from those seedlings that could produce quantities of the P 1-680.

Finally, in 1960, the new cherry was introduced to growers. As for a catchy name, the P 1-680 had, thankfully, become the Rainier, in honor of the Cascade volcano.

Oddly enough, when it was first introduced, the Rainier tree was marketed only as a “pollinizer,” says WSU’s Dr. Matthew Whiting.

This means that Rainier trees were added to orchards to assist in growing other varieties, and this remained true throughout much of the 1960s. It wasn’t until around 1970 that a grower in the Yakima Valley named Grady Auvil saw potential in the large and sweet Rainiers as something to be marketed directly to consumers.

It took around a decade or so, until the 1980s, for the Rainier to really take off as a premium cherry, especially as a pricey export to Asia but also as a pricier grocery store alternative to Bings.  James Michael of the Northwest Cherry Growers says the yellow and pink fruit now accounts for about 10% of the sweet cherry market.

And, like the Bing, it looks as if the Rainier is here to stay.

“It’s still a good cherry,” Dr. McCord said. “A lot of times, as breeders, we try to make progress, and the older varieties are clearly inferior to the new ones. But in this case, the Rainier is not a perfect cherry, but it is tough to beat.”

“So I think that’s why it’s still around after 60 years,” he added.

Meanwhile, scientists at WSU’s Prosser facility aren’t resting on their – or Harold Fogle’s – laurels.

Dr. McCord has been working on his own hybrid cherry varieties and reluctantly acknowledged that he has a favorite: The R-29. Even if all goes according to plan, McCord says, the R-29 – a large cherry which grows on trees that don’t require pollen from other varieties – won’t be ready for primetime for another decade or so.

As mentioned above, this business requires patience.

Also required for the R-29? A catchier name.

Special thanks to Stuart Eskenazi, formerly of The Seattle Times, who in 2004 researched and wrote an encyclopedic piece about the history of Rainier cherry, and who interviewed late Rainier cherry creator Harold Fogle.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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