History: When we speak about cherry trees we usually think about the sweet cherry (Prunus avium), but the true cherry is the sour cherry (Prunus cerasus), closely related to the sweet cherry.
Among the ornamental species we find the well-known Japanese cherry tree (Prunus serrulata).
Sour cherries were already known to the Greeks some 300 B.C. and were introduced to the Romans by the famous general Lucius Licinius Lucullus around 70 A.D.
Lucius Lucullus was not only a great Roman general; he was also a very educated man and a fine gourmet. He used to look for new species of trees and other plants whenever on campaign,
and according to History he discovered the sour cherry in a city around the Black Sea, in Asia Minor, and brought it to Rome after his victory against Mithridates VI, king of Pontus.
The city was called Cerasus by the Romans and Kerasous by the Greek and belongs now to modern-day Turkey.
The Romans introduced the sour cherry into the Roman empire. Centuries later in the Americas, colonists planted the first sour cherry tree in Massachussetts when they arrived.
The sour cherry was already a very popular fruit tree in Portugal in the 15th century for its medicinal virtues. Around 1755, there was a boom of shops in Lisbon selling sour cherries in “aguardente”
(alcoholic beverage) and this was the beginning of the famous Portuguese “ginginha” liqueur (after the name “ginja” by which the sour cherry is called in Portuguese).
Every year in spring a National Cherry Blossom Festival is held in Washington D.C. to commemorate the 1912 gift of Japanese cherry trees from Tokio to the city of Washington. These trees are planted in the Tidal Basin park.
The cherry blossom is a sacred flower in India, and according to folklore when a family has a cherry tree, that family will not lack anything.
Cherries in Japan: The ornamental Japanese tree (Prunus serrulata) has ever been associated to samurais, whose life was so beautiful and ephemeral as the tree blossom itself.
The cherry is also associated to the hanami (literally, “flower viewing”), the Japanese tradition of enjoying the beauty of flowers, in particular of the cherries.
From the end of March or beginning of April the Japanese cherries bloom all over Japan.
In the spring of 2009 the official opening of the hanami festival in Tokyo was disturbed by the fact that trees bloomed five days earlier than expected;
this was a most alarming event which is attributed to climate warming and a forecast of future climate changes not only in Japan but all over the world.
Cherries are so much integrated in Japanese culture that during World War Second the cherry blossom was used as a symbol to motivate Japanese people.
Before leaving for their war mission, Japanese air force pilots would paint cherry blossoms on the sides or wings of their planes,
and government propaganda encouraged the people to believe that cherry blossoms were the reincarnation of soldiers dead in battle.
Origin of the name: Cherry is the general name for the various tree species native to Asia and Eastern European regions like the Caspian and Black Seas.
As we saw above, it was the Roman general Lucius Licinius Lucullus who brought the first sour cherry to Rome from the ancient city of Cerasus,
The modern-day city is called Giresun, but it’s from the name of the city in ancient times that originated the fruit’s name in most languages.
For the Turks, it is kiraz. In French, it is cerise; in English, cherry; in German, Kirsche; and cereja in Portuguese.
As to the name sakura of the Japanese cherry tree, it seems that it relates to the samurais, whose life was so beautiful and so ephemeral as the tree blossom,
as the Legend of the Cherry Tree tells us.
How to grow cherry trees: Cherries in general need rich and moist yet well-drained soils and grow in most temperate latitudes where winters are cold and rainy.
Sour cherries are smaller and suffer fewer pests and diseases than the sweet varieties.
Unlike most sweet varieties, sour cherries are self-fertile or self-pollinizing.
If you have a sweet tooth you may like to plant strawberries around the cherries; both plants are highly compatible and your (healthy) flaw will be double rewarded.
How to use cherries: Most varieties are grown for their fruits, certain varieties for their precious timber; others are simply a source of beauty during their spectacular blossom season.
Sweet cherries are cultivated for their naturally flavoured fleshy fruit and served as dessert.
Sour cherries have a more acid flavour and are usually consumed in fruit preserves, jams and liqueurs such as Kirsch, Cherry, Marasquino and of course the famous Portuguese “ginginha”.
In the area of Brussels, breweries make a kind of Belgian beer using sour cherries (with the pits); it is called “Kriek”, literally sour cherry in Flemish.
Benefits of cherries: Cherries are a good source of iron and vitamin A, and are very rich in fructose and glucose (grape sugar).
Studies by researchers of the University of Michigan in the United States have shown that cherries can be used as natural painkillers in cases of arthritis and gout pain,
since its natural chemical composition is similar to that of aspirin and other painkiller medicines but does not present any counter-effects.
Antioxidants contained in cherries are also more powerful than vitamins E and C, but you’ll need to eat at least 20 cherries a day (=one pill) in other to benefit from their virtues. This for sure is a very agreeable cure...
In the case of constipation, it seems that eating around 1 kg of cherries per day will minimize or solve the problem.
In herbal medicine (phytotherapy) it is however the stems of the sour cherries that have been used for centuries.
They are an excellent diuretic without secondary effects and help get rid of toxic body waste.
This is mainly due to the natural antioxidants (bioflavonoids) and potassium salts contained in the stems
that stimulate elimination through the urine and the digestive process, thereby fighting against water retention and allowing relief in the “heavy legs” effect. They can also help in case of high-fat diet and are a wonderful gall bladder and liver cleanse.
Counter-indications: Cherries should never be mixed with starches (found mainly in cereals and potatoes) because it causes indigestion. This rule is also applicable to all acid and sub-acid fruits.
For the same reason, also avoid eating cherries when drinking milk.
© Dulce Rodrigues