I ordered a few more cherry trees for our "urban orchard" this winter. I am particularly excited about them because they are relatively new varieties bred by Zaiger Genetics to have a low chill requirement. They are called Royal Lee and Minnie Royal and advertised as only needing 200 to 500 chilling hours - with an emphasis on the lower end of that spectrum. It appears that these two varieties have only been available for sale since 2008 or so.
Zaiger's main wholesale distributor, Dave Wilson Nursery, describes Royal Lee as: a medium-large red cherry; heart shaped, very firm with excellent flavor; ripening 11-14 days ahead of Bing; very productive with a low chill requirement; pollinized by Minnie Royal. Similarly, Minnie Royal is described as: a medium-sized red cherry; firm with good flavor: ripens 11-14 days ahead of Bing; very productive with a low chill requirement; mainly used as a pollinizer for Royal Lee; pollinized by Royal Lee. Here is a YouTube video on Minnie Royal.
If you are thinking of planting fruit trees this year, now is the time to order them as the majority of nurseries will deliver them bare-rooted and should be planted before spring bud break. Texas A&M recommends that bare-rooted cherry trees be planted during the period from January through mid-February.
Here are some of the nurseries that are carrying these two low-chill varieties as of January, 2011:
Note that Womack is a local Texas nursery located in DeLeon, Texas which is just south of Eastland Texas. Please note that I could not find any nurseries carrying anything more than a 3/4 inch caliper tree.
It looks like you can theoretically get these trees in a few rootstocks: 3CR178, Colt, and Mazzard. 3CR178 is a new dwarf cherry rootstock from Zaiger Genetics growing to about 8 feet. The Colt rootstock may be particularly attractive for much of North Texas as it is more forgiving in heavier soils that hold more moisture during the wet season; nevertheless, cherry trees always need good drainage. Cherry trees on Colt rootstock should be dwarfed at 70 to 80% of standard size. Mazzard is a full size rootstock. As far as I can tell, all of the nurseries are sold out of the 3CR178 rootstock this year. (Please post a comment if you have found otherwise.)
These new varieties should be a welcome addition to Texas. I have not been able to locate on-line data for the number of chill hours that Dallas has received over the last few years, but some sources suggest that Dallas typically experiences 750 to 1,000 chill hours in a given year. This falls within the chill hour range for most sour cherries and sweet cherries which typically have listed ranges between 500 and 1,400 hours; however, I'm not convinced that the lower end hours haven't been understated or that Dallas regularly gets enough chilling hours to ensure a consistent crop of traditional sweet cherries.
Here is the gloomy outlook of Texas A&M: "Most of Texas lacks sufficient winter chilling needed to produce a normal bloom. Sour cherry varieties, such as Montmorency, bear with fair consistency in North Texas. Sweet cherry varieties are winter-killed because of fluctuating temperatures and are unadapted to all of Texas."
Despite that grim opinion, it will be interesting to see how these lower chill varieties perform.
As to my personal experiences so far, I planted a Compact Stella, Bing, and Black Tartarian from Willis Orchard Company in the Spring of 2009. All three are sweet cherry varieties and had 1.5 to 2 inch trunk diameters. I lost the Bing in 2009 due to poor drainage. In 2010, following a very cold winter, the Stella set a small amount of fruit. The Black Tartarian did not set any fruit. The relatively anemic performance could have been attributable to: not enough chill hours; not enough pollinators; or the fact that these trees have only been in the ground for two years. I will plant the Royal Lee and Minnie Lee this winter and continue to monitor how the Compact Stella and Black Tartarian do in 2011. If they again under perform, I may consider replacing them with a lower chill variety.
If you do decide to plant some cherry trees this year, please note that most varieties require a second variety as a pollinator. A few varieties such as Stella and Lapins are self pollinating. A few other varieties will not serve as a pollinator for other varieties, so put some thought into what you will be planting.
If you have planted cherry trees in Texas, please post a comment and share your experiences.