12 Years Later: Low Chill Cherries in Southern California [Update]

12 Years Later: Low Chill Cherries in Southern California [Update]

12 years ago, my neighbor, K, volunteered her narrow front yard space for us to try two new low chill cherry trees, Minnie Royal and Royal Lee. She finds it funny that every January and February I start checking up on the trees, sometimes daily just to look for new blooms or to add more grafts of other cherries.  One of her tree’s bloom time is always ahead of the other, and in warm years by as much as two weeks. It is frustrating they don’t always sync up their bloom in really low chill years.

Low chill cherry Socal
The Royal Lee Cherry tree with lots of grafts and just begining to bloom

By no means are these trees duds. There have been years with good crops, sometimes even excellent crops like in 2011, 2018, and 2019. But in average years, about 75% of the flowers go unpollinated on the Royal Lee. In those years, the crops are light. In 2011 we had more than 600 hours of chill and in the other two bumper crop years, we had a lot of rain. After some investigation, I found out the problem of bloom timing is not localized to Long Beach and is something the grower is aware of. There are numerous complaints on the DWN forums, at gardenweb, and growingfruit.org, and the grower now posts on their website that the bloom timing and pollination will sync up with age.  In my personal opinion, solely based on observation, I think they are different in their chilling needs and if we have an early warm spell, the one that has had its chill met, starts blooming before the other, which hasn’t had its chill needs met yet. Royal Lee might be 200-250 hours and the Minnie Royal 300-350. I think they snyc up with 350 hours of uninterupted chill and no warm spell to trigger Royal Lee to bloom earlier.

Early blooms on the trees

I have over the last three years been grafting other cherry varieties into the cherry trees. K also purchased a Royal Crimson tree, 6GM25 from H & H when it was first released. The oldest grafts are Brooks, Coral Champagne, Lapins, and Tulare. Last year I added Early Burlat and Stella, and just this year I grafted in Royal Rainier.

grafted cherry tree multiple graft
A graft of Royal Rainier that I added this year. It has blooms that I am temporarily leaving for pollination. I will not let them fruit for at least a year, maybe two, depending on the vigor.

Fortunately, it looks like we have had enough chill for the two trees to bloom in sync this year. Last I checked, we had about 380 chill hours, and both Minnie Royal and Royal Lee are blooming this week. Brooks and Coral Champagne cherry blooms are also starting to swell. The other varieties look a little behind them, especially Royal Crimson, Stella, and Early Burlat.

fruit on the cherry tree
This photo was taken in a prior year, just before it got covered to protect it from the birds

Brooks and Coral Champagne are among the first varieties of sweet cherries to show up at the local farmers market, usually in late April to Mid May.  Brooks is actually my favorite cherry and I go out of my way to buy it and I am hopeful we will get some fruit on it this year.  When I have gone “U-Pick” cherry picking in Leona Valley at Amber’s Cherry farm, Brooks are the cherry I can’t get enough of.  Eventhough, according to DWN, the chill hours of Brooks, Early Burlat, Coral Champagne, and Tulare are listed as “N/A,” other commercial growers list all four at 400 between 500 chilling hours.  Technically, 400 hours is low chill and we got almost that this season here locally to date. I have a cherry on Kyrmsk 5 rootstock planted in my yard with with Coral Champagne, Brooks, Lapins, and Tulare. Next winter I might add Minnie Royal and Royal Lee since the patents are due to expire this Spring.

Last May, about once or twice a week, K brought me over a bowl of delicious cherries to enjoy. I am hopeful we will have another good year for cherries in SoCal. They are worth the trouble.

What is your experience with growing cherries in Southern California? Please leave a comment. Thank you.

5 thoughts on “12 Years Later: Low Chill Cherries in Southern California [Update]

  1. Thank you for this excellent discussion about cherries. We have built cages for stone fruits in attempts to keep rodents and coyotes out but wonder if the type of netting we are using doesn’t allow bees to pollinate. We leave the door open when the fruit trees are in flower. We are going to try Royal Lee and Minnie Royal this year. Sunset zone 23, Bonall

  2. Amazing that you got Brooks in Southern California! Nice work experimenting. Most years my inland San Diego yard blooms Minnie Royal first and Royal Lee overlapping only partially. Royal Crimson helps ensure perfect overlap. For tart cherries English Morello seems pretty reliable here.

  3. I wish I had happy cherry harvest news to report, but I do not. My neighbor actually has had a very frustrating cherry season. She had lots of fruit ripening, but has not picked much of her bountiful crop. She ended up with a rat problem this year and the rats were eating the cherries off the tree before they turned completely red. She thought it was birds damaging the cherries or squirrels at first, so she covered the tree in netting. It was still happening, so her hubby set up cameras and got video footage that the culprits were rats. They were even eating the completely green cherries. She has also had a problem with them eating the rinds on her improved meyer lemon too. They are dealing with rat control now.

  4. This research is extremely helpful for us here in San Diego.
    What would you recommend as a pollinizer for Brooks?
    —Mark Miner

    1. Hi,

      Thanks! I was hoping to use Coral or Tulare as the pollinizers of Brooks. Tulare and Royal Crimson bloomed after and were not in sync with Coral or Brooks this year, so I doubt either were the pollinizer. Stella, Lapins, and Royal Rainer (which is a brand new graft) were blooming when the Brooks was blooming this year. Early Burlat did not bloom at all. UC Davis reports Early Burlat, Tulare, and Bing as good pollinizers. I wish I could be of more help, but I am not sure what was the pollinizer of Brooks this season. My neighbor only picked a few Brooks cherries off the small grafted branch.

      By the way, Mark, thank you very much for the grape scions that you donated to the SD CRFG scion exchange. My friend, Kathy, brought me back a variety that was on my wishlist that she said you grow and donated. The scions rooted and are doing well. Kathy spoke very highly of you and your knowledge of grapes. Thank you.

I would love to know what you think about this.

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