What’s blooming in the area: Tamarix, tea roses, Apache plume, trumpet creeper, honeysuckle, silver lace vine, cholla, prickly pear, yucca, lilies, fern and leather leaved globemallows, tumble mustard, alfalfa, scurf pea, white sweet and purple clover, licorice, milkweed, oxalis, velvetweed, scarlet beeblossom, white evening primrose, nits and lice, datura, bindweed, bachelor button, Hopi tea, goatsbeard, hawkweed, hairy golden and strapleaf spine asters, native dandelion, needle, rice, brome and crab grasses; wild morning glories up; hay baled; cherries for sale along main road last Friday afternoon.
What’s blooming in my yard, looking north: Fragrant catalpa, Dr Huey and miniature roses, red hot poker, golden-spur columbine, hartweg, butterfly weed, Mexican hat, chocolate flower, coreopsis, blanket flower, anthemis, black-eyed Susan, Moonshine and Parker’s Gold yarrow; buds on mums; cherries ripening.
Looking east: Floribunda roses, California and Shirley poppies, hollyhock, winecup, coral bells, few cheddar pinks, bouncing Bess, snow-in-summer, sea pink, Jupiter’s beard, snapdragons, coral beardtongue, Maltese cross, rock rose, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, Mount Atlas daisy; buds on sidalcea and tomatillo.
Looking south: Pasture, blaze, rugosa and rugosa hybrid roses, daylily, sweet pea.
Looking west: Flax, catmint, Rumanian sage, blue salvia, purple and white beardtongues, white spurge; buds on Shasta daisy and sea lavender.
Bedding plants: Moss rose, sweet alyssum, tomato.
Inside: South African aptenia and South American bougainvillea.
Animal sightings: Rabbit, brown and tan patterned snake again, geckos, hummingbirds on coral beardtongues, bumble bees on catmint, bees on rugosa, grasshoppers, large black harvester and small dark ants.
Weather: Warmer temperature highs and lows early in week encouraged warm weather seedlings like cosmos and morning glories; rain yesterday; 15:57 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: The first cherry tree I remember was huge, even by childhood standards set by oaks. It stood so tall in my high school chemistry teacher’s yard that the lowest branches were beyond my reach.
I have no idea now what I was doing in that yard around 1960. Science was dangerous in those years. Specialists were still recording the delayed effects of massive radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while Hollywood was channeling our fears into safer areas. In 1954 The Creature from the Black Lagoon told us it was dangerous to explore the past in far distant places. I Was a Teenage Werewolf reminded us in 1957 it was perilous to study our own psyches.
However, by the time I was facing my first cherry tree we could no longer subrogate genetics. Thalidomide was producing birth defects in Europe and guys were using the word mutant as a derogatory slam.
While we were being frightened by civil defense warnings, scientists at the John Innes Institute in Hertford were bombarding plants with gamma radiation. They found many mutations lasted only the lifetime of the treated plant, but a few could be passed on. The one Dan Lewis and Leslie Crowe found most intriguing was the S gene that determined if a plant could fertilize itself or was programmed to accept pollen from only a plant outside its kinship group.
Cherries were particularly interesting because sour ones, derived from Prunus cerasus, can fertilize themselves while the sweet, descended from Prunus avium, exist in at least 27 exogamous groups. To produce an edible sweet cherry, you needed two trees the size of that one in my teacher’s backyard.
In 1954, Lewis and Crowe produced a self-fertile sweet cherry seedling, JI2420, by crossing the pollen from an irradiated Napoleon bud with the seed of an Emperor Francis. They and other biologists then focused on defining precisely what part of the S gene they had altered and observed the biomechanics of pollination.
Karl Lapins was less theoretical in British Columbia. Farmers devoted at least a tenth of their land to what was, at best, furniture wood, and their income depended on bees that stayed home in bad weather. The first variety the Summerland breeding program had released in 1951 was Van, a 1942 selection of an open-pollinated Empress Eugenie made by A. J. Mann that could make all the land productive by both bearing acceptable fruit and pollinating the then popular Bing.
Lapins treated different cultivars with JI2420 pollen to discover which were compatible. In 1968, the Canadian government released his Stella, the first commercially viable self-fertile cherry that had resulted from a match with a Lambert. Farmers were freed from the tyranny of the bee.
By the time I was planting my cherries in 1997, mail order catalogs offered trees that were both dwarfed and self-compatible. I gambled on a sour Montmorency and a sweet Lapins, which Summerland had released in 1983 as a Stella improved by mating with Van. The unnamed sour root took over, while the sweet on Geissin 148-2 stock remained a sapling for years.
The sour pair produced flowers and fruit the next year. They skipped the cherries in 1999, but have produced something every year since, while the more desirable tree has limped along. There finally were some flowers in 2004, but no fruit. This April I noticed the bees preferred the white rootstock flowers. Mainly flies visited the white Lapins. If a bee came over, it returned to the other tree. I thought I’d found the answer to my fruitless tree - men may have made it unisexual but they’d bred out its ability to flirt in the process.
When I was investigating the bright red Montmorency pie cherries last weekend, I discovered there actually were some cherries on the other tree well hidden under the leaves, so dark they couldn’t be seen. They were what I’d wanted twelve years ago, neither sour nor sweet, but cherry flavored and firm.
I was obviously wrong to impute infertility to genetic manipulation; the problem probably laid in the germplasm that hadn’t been altered. Although catalogs gloss over it with advice about root stock, specialists know sour cherries will grow almost anywhere, but the sweet are fussy. In Michigan they only prosper to the north around Grand Traverse Bay on the Lake Michigan side of the lower peninsula. Most come from the Pacific northwest.
My old science teacher might have explained my haphazard luck by pointing to our weather. This year the Lapins bloomed about two weeks after the last snow, when morning temperatures still fell below freezing. The first fruit appeared when the weather warmed the first of May. Now they’ve had unusual rain clouds for several weeks, not enough to split skins when the pulp absorbed water, but enough to keep them humidified.
Their genetics are fine. They just need Michigan’s climate, not New Mexico’s.
Notes:Bekefi, Zs. "Review of Sweet and Sour Cherry Incompatibility," International Journal of Horticultural Science 12:111-116:2002.
Kappel, Frank. "‘Van’ Sweet Cherry," Fruit Varieties Journal 52:182-183:1998.
Lapins, Karl O. and David W. Lane. "Apple Tree Named ‘Creston’," US patent PP10739, 1998, describes their methods at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland, British Columbia.
Photograph: Lapins sweet cherries, 20 June 2009.