CHERRIES AND THEIR KINDRED
The genus Prunus plays a very important part in horticulture. It furnishes, in temperate climates, the stone-fruits, plants of ancient and modern agriculture of which there are a score or more commonly cultivated and at least as many more sparingly grown for their edible fruits. of these stone-fruits the species of cherries rank with those of the plum and the peach in commercial importance while the several botanical groups of the apricot and almond are less important, but hardly less well-known, members of this notable genus. Prunus is of interest, too, because the history of its edible species follows step by step the history of agriculture. The domestication of its fruits from wild progenitors, most of which are still subjects of common observation, illustrates well the influences and conditions under which plants have generally been brought into domestication.
The genus is also of more than ordinary note because the number of its economic species is being increased almost yearly by new-found treasures from North America and Asia, not varieties but species, which pronidse under future domestication still further to enrich horticulture.
The plum and the peach surpass the cherry in diversity of flavor, aroma, texture, color, form and size, characters which make fruits pleasant to the palate and beautiful to the eye; but the cherry, perhaps, plays a more important part than the plum or the peach in domestic economy. It has fewer prejudices as to soil and climate, hence is much more widely distributed and is more easily grown, being better represented in the orchards and gardens in the regions where the three fruits grow. The cherry, too, fruits more quickly after planting, ripens earlier in the season and its varieties are more regular in bearing and usually more fruitful - characters that greatly commend it to fruit-growing people. Probably it is the most popular of all fruits for the garden, dooryard, roadside and small orchard. All in all, while adorning a somewhat humbler place in pomology, it is more generally useful than the showier and more delicate plum and peach.
Though placed by most botanists in the same genus, each of the stone-fruits constitutes a natural group so distinct that neither botanist nor fruit- grower could possibly take one for another as the trees and fruits of the different groups are called to mind. But there are outstanding forms which seem to establish connections between the many species and the several groups of fruits and through these outliers the characters are so confounded in attempting to separate species that it becomes quickly apparent that there are few distinct lines of cleavage within the genus. For several centuries systematists have disputed as to -whether the stone-fruits fall most naturally into one, two, or three genera - indeed have not been able to agree as to whether some species are plums or cherries, or others apricots or plums.
Hybridization between the cultivated divisions of the genus unquestionably it has taken place in nature as well - has added to the perplexities of classification. Accepting, then, for the present at least, the very artificial classification which, rather paradoxically, places in one genus a number of fruits commonly thought of as quite distinct, let us briefly note the characters which best distinguish cherries from their congeners.
The cherry is nearest of kin to the plum. These two are roughly separated from the other cultivated members of the genus to which they belong by bearing their fruits on stems in fascicles while the others are practically stemless and are solitary or borne in pairs. The fruits of plums and cherries are globular or oblong, succulent and smooth or nearly so. Peaches, apricots, nectarines and almonds are more sulcate than plums and cherries and the almond has a drier flesh, splitting at maturity to liberate the stone; and, with the exception of nectarines and a few varieties of apricots, all are very pubescent. The stones of cherries and plums are smooth, or nearly so, while those of the other fruits are sculptured and pitted, though those of the apricot are often somewhat plum-like.
Cherries are separated from plums by their smaller size and distinctive color of skin, juice and flesh; by the texture and distinct flavor of the flesh; by growth in corymbose rather than umbelliferous fascicles; by the more globular stone; and by the arrangement of the leaves in the bud. Leaves of the plum are usually convolute, or rolled up, in the bud, while those of the cherry are conduplicate, or folded lengthwise along the midrib.
We have been discussing the cherries of common cultivation the Sweet Cherry and Sour Cherry of the orchards, the fascicled cherries to which the botanists give the group name, Cerasus. But there is another group, the Padus cherries, well worthy of brief mention. The most noteworthy representatives of Padus are the bird cherry (Prunuspadus) of the Old World and the choke cherry (Prunus virginiana) of the New World. These Padus cherries are distinguished botanicallyin having their flowers borne in racemes, that is, in long clusters of which those nearest the base of the shoot open first - rather than in the short-clustered fascicles of the Cerasus group. The cherries are small and almost or quite black. The Padus cherries are but sparingly cultivated but undoubtedly they are capable of some improvement under more thorough cultivation.