One of the smallest fruits, cherries have a stone and belong to the same genus of the rose family as plums, apricots and peaches.  Cherries are divided into two groups:  sweet and sour.


Although there are more than 500 varieties, only 15 are commercially important in the U.S., with the leader being the variety called Bing.  Other sweet cherries include Black Republican, Black Tartan, Windsor and Schmidt. 

More than 270 varieties of sour cherries are grown in the U.S.  Sour varieties include the Early Richmond, English Morello and the Montmorency.  These cherries are typically too tart to be eaten fresh but are canned or frozen to become sauces and pie fillings.

Yugoslavia and northern Italy were home to maraschino cherries.  Merchants would marinate a local cherry (called the Marasca) in a liquer made from the leaves and fruit of the cherry tree.  Imported to the U.S. in the 1890s, the maraschino cherry became a delicacy in the finer hotels and restaurants.


Cherries originated in west Asia and Europe.  This small fruit was named after the ancient Turkish town of Cerasus and is believed to date back to at least 300 B.C.E., when they were described by Theophrastus, a Greek botanist.  Pliny discussed the cherry trees present in Rome, Germany, France and England in 70 C.E.

Cherries were among the first fruits brought to America in the 1600s by the early settlers.  French colonists from Normandy later planted cherry pits down the Great Lakes area and along the Saint Lawrence River.  Cherry trees became part of the settlers' gardens as the cities of Detroit, Vincennes and other mid-western settlements were established.

Nutritional Information

Sour cherries have fewer calories, with a 100-gram serving providing just 58 calories (compared to 70 calories for sweet cherries).  The sour versions of this fruit also have more vitamin A, with 1,000 IU per 100-gram serving.  Sweet cherries have a mere 110 IU of this important vitamin. 

Both varieties of cherries have melatonin, flavonoids, perillyl alcohol and significant amounts of several other nutrients.  Sour cherries are also a very good source for vitamin C and copper, as well as a good source of manganese. 

Health Benefits

Like berries, cherries are rich in flavonoids, specifically proanthocyaniins and anothcyanadins, the molecules that give cherries their deep red color.  As a rule, the darker the color of the cherry, the healthier it is because it contains more flavonoids.  A number of beneficial effects are gained from flavonoids. 

One study at Michigan State University concentrated on the ability of fruits (including cherries) to act as antioxidants and inhibit the enzyme cydooxygenase.  This enzymes is produced in the body as COX-1 and COX-2, each with different purposes.  COX-1 creates prostaglandins, hormone-like molecules used to send "housekeeping" messages to the cells nearby, while COX-2 is built in response to inflammatory processes and is used to signal inflammation and pain.  Aspirin and ibuprofen work by blocking both enzymes.  Newer drugs (such as Celebrex and Vioxx) work by blocking only COX-2.  These drugs can have serious side effects but cherries do not.

Montmorency tart cherries have also been found to have significant quantities of melatonin, a hormone produced at the base of the brain in the pineal gland.  Melatonin influences the process of sleep but is also a very powerful antioxidant.  Some other foods (such as bananas) also contain melatonin, but the quantities are so small they have no effect on the brain.  The 0.1 to 0.3 milligrams of melatonin per serving of Montmorency cherries has been shown in studies to effectively induce sleep.

Another significant health factor affected by cherries is anticancer protection.  Studies have shown that two of the anthocyandins present in cherries inhibit the growth of colon cancer.  Perillyl, another natural compound in cherries, appears to reduce the incidence of all types of cancer.


Check cherries for signs of decay or mold before purchasing.  Refrigerate cherries and wash them thoroughly before consuming.  Cherries are susceptible to growing Aspergillus molds, which produce a toxin called aflatoxin that is also found in moldy peanuts.  In studies with animals, this toxin has been found to have a carcinogenic effect.

Selecting and Storing

Cherry season is very short, just slightly longer than three months.  The first cherries appear on trees in May and are harvested in August.  Fresh cherries sold after August are either from cold storage or are from New Zealand.

Cherries should be kept cool and moist, as warm temperatures will cause texture and flavor to quickly deteriorate.  The best cherries are large and glossy.  Sweet cherries should be quite firm while sour cherries are best when medium firm.   If cherries are bruised or sticky and leaking juice, do not purchase them.  Dark stems are indicative of poor storage conditions or old age.

Serving Ideas for Cherries

When using cherries in fruit salads or cooking or juicing them, halve the cherries with a paring knife and remove the pit.  If adding cherries to fruit salads, add them just before serving so their bright colors won't stain the other ingredients in the salad.  Cherries are excellent on top of plain or frozen yogurt, or blend all to make tasty but healthy smoothie.



  1. Holford, P.(2004). The optimum nutrition bible. London : Piatkus
  2. Holford, P & Lawson, S. (2008). Optimum Nutrition Made Easy How to achieve optimum health. London : Piatkus
  3. Murray, M.T. et al.(2005). Encyclopedia of healing foods. London : Piatkus
  4. Yeager, S. & Prevention Health Books. (1998). The doctors book of food remedies : the newest discoveries in the power of food to cure and prevent health problems from aging and diabetes to ulcers and yeast infections. [Emmaus, Pa.] : Rodale

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