Every year, visitors flock to the exuberant energy of the National Cherry Festival and devour countless cherry-infused or inspired foods and drinks at their favorite local restaurant — it is no secret that Traverse City and many other surrounding Northern Michigan towns are hailed for their crème de la crème cultivation of sweet and tart cherries. However, though many are aware of Traverse City‘s reputation as the Cherry Capital, you may be less well-versed on our role in cherry production and how we obtained the title. Read on for MyNorth’s lowdown of Northern Michigan cherries: where they grow best, some different varieties to try, and where you can expect cherries from Northern Michigan to crop up throughout the country.

Cherry Challenges: The Fruit of Much Labor

Next time you bite into a cherry or chomp down a cherry cobbler, it may help you to appreciate the juicy explosion of flavor by considering how much work went into producing a proper harvest. Cherry trees are quite susceptible to pest interference and disease, and a number of preventative measures must be taken to ensure a healthy crop.

Cherry trees grow best in dry and light soils, so the sandy landscapes of Northern Michigan (such as the majority of Old Mission Peninsula) are ideal for cultivation.

“Cherries like rolling hills,” says Michigan State University Extension Specialist and Fruit Educator Nikki Rothwell. “All cold air sits on the bottom, so we grow cherries on the tops of our hills. They also like sandy soils. They don’t like wet feet, so they don’t grow as well in areas with heavy soils.”

An army of different species of insects threatens the livelihood of cherries as temperatures fluctuate throughout the brief growing season. Cherry trees thrive in temperate climates, so blazing temperatures alone could be harmful, but diseases like brown rot and pests like mites, cherry and black cherry fruit flies, and borers pose potential dangers associated with growing the fruit. Luckily, Northern Michigan farmers have the knowledge and resources to combat these factors with Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which is an aggregate approach to pest control that considers the insects’ life cycles and interactions with the environment to manage pests with the most economical and least harmful practices possible.

Sweet Cherries

Sweet cherries are perhaps the most coveted and well-known type, ready to be enjoyed without any preparation. These are the kinds of cherries you pick at a farm or pick up at a farmer’s market and pop in your mouth with an assured sense of glee — they are also the cherries that you’ll find in the bottom of your yogurt cup or on your ice cream cone. Michigan is primarily a processing sweet cherry state, meaning that most of the sweet cherries grown here are distributed to the canner market for yogurt (dark sweet types), and the rest are sent to the brine market to get made into maraschino cherries (lighter colored sweet types).

How many sweet cherries are grown in Michigan?

There are about 7,500 acres of sweet cherries growing in Michigan, which equals around 800,000 trees. Most of the farms are found in Northern Michigan in counties such as Antrim, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau.

What are some popular varieties?

Some of the most common varieties of sweet cherries in Michigan are Emperor Francis, Gold, Napoleon, and Ulster.

Any others I should try?

Less common (but not less delicious) sweet cherry types include Benton, Attika, Kristen, Cavalier, and the Pearl series: Black Pearl, Ebony Pearl, Burgundy Pearl, and Radiance Pearl. Although most sweet cherries are large and have a dark coloring, Rainier and Gold Star cherries are sweet cherries that sport a golden hue. Go ahead, try one!

Best ways to use them?

Although some recipes will call for sweet cherries, they are less ideal for cooking with because their flavor dulls when heated. The best way to utilize your sweet cherry harvest is to can them at home (following a method like this) in a simple syrup to use later in pies, with ice cream, or as a filling for a dessert of your choice. Don’t forget: the true beauty of sweet cherries is you can devour them fresh! But be warned, it’s not easy to stop.

Where do Northern Michigan sweet cherries go?

Sweet cherries grown, picked, and processed in Michigan usually end up in yogurt or ice cream products that are shipped all over the world while fresh sweet cherries are often distributed to large Midwestern cities (and enjoyed within the area, of course).

Tart Cherries

Despite the name, these “sour” cherries probably won’t make you pucker up, especially once they’ve been cooked! The lower sugar content and higher acidity of tart cherries compared to their sweet counterparts make them ideal for baking, cooking, and drying. These cherries have a brighter red flesh than sweet varieties, and are the reason that Northern Michigan is on the Cherry Map.

How many tart cherries are grown in Michigan?

A staggering 32,000 acres of tart cherries are grown throughout the state, which equates to over 3.5 million tart cherry trees. In fact, 50 percent of the nation’s cherries are grown in Northern Michigan, specifically within Antrim, Manistee, Benzie, Leelanau, and Grand Traverse counties.

What are some popular varieties?

There is a much less diverse spread of tart cherry varieties than sweet cherries. The primary varietal is the Montmorency, which could easily be considered the poster child of the National Cherry Festival (or Traverse City in general). The other notable type is the Balaton, which takes its name from a lake in its native Hungary.

Best ways to use them?

The most common way to package and utilize tart cherries for baking is using a method that produces “five-plus-one” cherries. This means a 5-pound batch of tart cherries is combined with one pound of sugar, which can be stored and frozen for later use or used immediately as a filling for pies, crumbles, and other delectable baked goods. Tart cherries are also great dried and thrown on your favorite summer salad (or eaten by themselves); additionally, the high antioxidant and vitamin C content of the tart cherry lends itself well as a juice concentrate.

Where do Northern Michigan tart cherries go?

All over! Tart cherries grown in Northern Michigan primarily surface in the food market as processed foods like cherry concentrate, juices, purees, pie filling, or dried cherries. Growers work closely with food processing companies based throughout the state — many of them nearby, in Traverse City, Elk Rapids, Ludington, and Frankfort — and the resulting products are shipped within Michigan and spread throughout the country. This means if you buy any of the aforementioned products at a market or grocery store, there’s a very high chance the cherries used to make it were grown not far from your doorstep.

More Northern Michigan Food & Drink

Photo(s) by David Weidner