The 20,000 trees that make up the Orchard at Yarra Valley Cherries are on rolling hills situated just south of the Warramate Hills, and adjacent to the Warburton rail trail. The first trees were planted in 1993, and since that time, there have been significant changes made to the size and makeup of the Orchard.
Cherry trees have a growth production life of approximately 20 years, so there is a constant yet gradual replacement program to both new and older trees and to introduce new varieties.
Five years ago, the Orchard was significantly expanded with a further 6,000 trees, representing some of the newer varieties propagated in the United States, which are grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock.
We need the diversity of over 35 varieties to ensure that cherries are available right throughout the November/December season.
Our soils at Yarra Valley Cherries are made up of siltstone or mudstone, better known as grey alluvial clay. It’s quite tough country, which requires our trees to work hard to produce our fruit. Whilst cherries do best in moist well drained rich soil, they can tolerate less desirable soils but produce less fruit. With this lesser volume of cherries comes a more concentrated, complex flavour that we consider a distinguishing feature of our cherries.
Growing cherries is a year-round commitment. During the spring the buds open into flowers that attract bees for pollination. That’s why we bring in three million bees in mid-September and distribute the hives around the Orchard. The initiation of floral buds commences in the preceding summer. Flower buds contain one to five flowers, but two to three flowers per bud is most common.
Cherries have a very short time of the tree from flowering to maturity – much shorter than most fruit crops. They are thus very influenced by climatic conditions, with adverse weather dramatically impacting the quality of the cherries that can lead to the cherries being downgraded.
In winter, the trees need a minimum of 500-700 chill hours (between 2 degrees – 12 degrees) in order to ensure a full bud break in spring. In
winter, pruning continues to remove the leader branches in mature trees, to allow sunlight to permeate through to the developing branches.
Following the pollination, flowers morph into tiny little round balls on stalks, which is the early formation of the cherries.
As they grow, they need to be protected from insects and diseases, as well as being fed and watered. The closer that it comes to the cherries ripening, the more attractive the cherries are to birds so more protection is needed.
When the cherries are ripe, they are picked by hand by twenty and forty pickers each day. It takes about thirty pickers a day to pick a hectare of cherries. Following being picked, the cherries are transported to the packing shed where they go through a hydrocooler, to bring the fruit down to 3-degree temperature.
The bins of cooled fruit are then stored in the cool room until they are put through the electronic grading machine and packed into punnets, 1kg, 2kg or 5kg boxes. Normally the cherries are picked, graded and packed on the same day, which ensures their freshness.
In February/March, after the season, it is necessary for the pruning of the trees to start again. It must be done annually, because if cherry trees are not cut back, they can grow to over 15 metres tall.
At Yarra Valley Cherries, we like to maintain our trees to 2.5 metres, so the cherries can be harvested more easily by the pickers.
In May, cherries start losing their leaves and go into dormancy, and start to pile up the 700 chill hours that’s necessary to set next year’s fruits.
Sweet cherries as we know them today originated in Asia Minor, between the Caspian and the Black Sea, and what is now Georgia and Armenia. The earliest known reference to cherries is in the History of Plants by the Greek Philosopher Theophrastus, who lived between 3071 - 2087 BC.
How cherries travelled to Asia Minor to Europe remains a mystery, but the common belief is that birds carried them between the continents. Then Colonisers took cherries to the United States by ship in the 1600's.
The answer to that depends on what moment in history you are looking at. For example, medieval art and literature imputed cherries with a sacred significance. It was lauded in the Cherry Tree Carol, a Christmas ballad sung as early as the 15th century.
In the medieval chivalric romance Sir Cleges, it tells a story of a poor knight who prays beneath a tree, asking that he and his family attain wealth. When he looks up the tree, it is covered in cherries - a miracle. It portends good things to come and he and his son take the cherries to the King who, out of gratitude for this miraculous gift provides them with wealth and means.
As the years progress, cherries took on a more secular meaning, being associated with romance and sex. Writers viewed cherries as ripe, full and waiting to burst - all appropriate euphemisms for eroticism.
In early Christian text, cherries' spiritual meaning centres primarily on the miraculous and divine. The fruit often grows or appears in unlikely circumstances serving evidence of Gods wondrousness and glory.
The spiritual significance here is that with God, all things are possible as shown when a cherry tree bends to allow its fruit to be picked.
Cherries appear throughout works of visual art, including in paintings and embroideries. They typically represent good fortune, celestial wealth and the fruits of paradise. In some paintings, they are the focal point of the entire picture. In others, they dangle discreetly from the subjects’ hand or as in the case of the famous painting of Elizabeth I from the ears.
Cherries feature in varying degrees in a number of famous paintings including, ‘The Cherry Gathers’, 1786 by Francois Boucher, ‘Girl under the Cherry Blossoms’, by Emile Vernon, ‘Madonna with Cherries’, 1518 by Titian Vecelli, and the ‘Boy
with Cherries’, 1874 by Edouard Manet.
According to the Mayo Clinic, it takes 47 hours for food to be digested by women and 33 hours for men.