THE CHERRY, SWEET AND SOUR
Vienna, 20 July 2018
In one of my wanderings through the Vienna woods with my wife, I noticed a tree like this one growing along the side of the path.
The bark, with those typical striations, almost scarifications, suggested strongly to me that it was a cherry tree.
The leaves looked cherry-like too. There was a cherry-like fruits hanging on the branches, but they were really small.
Was this a cherry tree gone feral, I wondered?
Cautiously, oh so cautiously, I tried one of the fruits. There was hardly any pulp, although what there was tasted cherry-like. And the small seed looked cherry-like too. I pronounced to my wife, who was standing anxiously by, waiting for me to keel over from eating some deadly poison, that in my opinion we were standing before a wild cherry tree.
Now that I had noticed the tree, I began to see them everywhere along our walks – a nice change from the drifts of wild garlic. Later on, one of the entries along a little “Nature Walk” at Hermesvilla (a large country house built by Emperor Franz-Josef for his beloved Sissi on the outskirts of Vienna) informed me that these were indeed wild cherry trees. In German, they have a charming name, Vogel Kirsche, a name that Linnaeus echoed in the Latin name he gave it, Prunus avium. I say charming, because I can indeed imagine birds feasting on these small fruit. What a lovely banquet Nature has given them! Here, a clever photographer has caught one in the act.
I have since read that small mammals also eat them, spreading – like the birds – the seeds far and wide, this no doubt explaining why I was discovering the trees far and wide in the woods around Vienna.
When I was a much smaller mammal than I am now, I distinctly remember climbing into the cherry tree which my French grandmother had in a corner of her garden – a big, stately old tree which had been there many a-year – and scarfing down its plump purple cherries, spitting out the cherry seeds far and wide. Ah, how sweet those cherries were! Even now, fifty and more years later, I can remember their taste. So I salute the Lords of the Universe, who in their infinite wisdom created the Vogel Kirsche for the delectation of the Vogels and small mammals!
Well, after that flight of poetic fancy, let me return to earth and to a more sober turn of phrase. For those among my readers who are as interested as I am in etymology, it may interest them to know that the English word “cherry” derives from the Old Northern French or Norman word for the tree and fruit “cherise”, which itself is derived from the Latin word “cerasum”, which in turn is a derivation of the ancient Greek word “kerasous”. The etymology tracks the journey of the domesticated cherry tree into Europe.
Kerasous was actually the name of one of the Pontic Greek provinces lying on the southern shores of the Black Sea, east of Trebizond. It was here that the Greek world got to know the domesticated cherry tree that we are familiar with, with its much larger cherries than the tiny fruit of the wild cherry tree which I had nibbled at cautiously. Somewhere in the Anatolian highlands behind Kerasous, farmers had domesticated the wild cherry tree, patiently coaxing it over generations to deliver up bigger fruits more on the scale of us big mammals, and sweeter and juicier into the bargain.
I would assume that Ancient Greeks brought back some trees and planted them in the Greek heartlands. From there, I would have thought it no great flight of the imagination to think that the cherry tree spread to Magna Graecia, Greater Greece, that string of Greek colonies that ran along the insole and heel of the Italian boot and the southern coasts of Sicily, and from there a skip, hop, and a jump would have brought the tree to the expanding Roman world.
Not so, according to Gaius Plinius Secundus, known to us as Pliny the Elder. In his Natural History
written in the late 70s AD, he holds that the cherry tree entered the Roman world in a much more Roman way, as spoils of war. In his words (translated, I hasten to add, by someone much more learned in Latin than I), “before the victory of L. Lucullus in the war against Mithridates, that is down to 74 BC, there were no cherry trees in Italy. Lucullus first imported them from Pontus”. Lucius Licinius Lucullus (to give the man his full name) was a Roman consul in the sunset years of the Roman Republic.
He was, it seems, a brilliant general. Among his other accomplishments, he comprehensively thrashed Mithridates, king of Pontus. In the process, he gained for himself untold riches in loot, which, along with the domesticated cherry tree, he brought back to Rome. He used his riches to live a life of luxury, something which was still frowned upon in Republican Rome but was to become the norm in Imperial Rome. Apart conspicuous consumerism (which included that typical expense of the Roman rich and powerful, the organization of extravagant games), Lucullus created a number of gardens, a fragment of one of which still exists in the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome.
This was another “spoil” of war – Lucullus had picked up the Persian love of gardens during his Eastern campaigns; I have had cause to mention Persian gardens in an earlier post, in quite another context. No doubt it was in his gardens that he planted his imported cherry trees and invited the Roman rich and powerful to partake of its fruit. As might be expected, the fruit became incredibly popular and plantings of the cherry tree grew apace. As the Roman legions moved north carrying the Pax Romana and civitas with them, the administrators who followed carried along cherry trees to plant in the conquered lands. Citing Pliny again, “in 120 years they have crossed the ocean and got as far as Britain”.
Of course, strictly speaking Pliny was wrong when he said that there were no cherry trees in Italy before Lucullus brought them. There were, but of the type which I had come across in the Vienna woods. The natural habitat of Prunus avium stretches from Ireland to the Iranian Plateau.
Our ancestors were eating their little fruits at least two thousands years before Pliny wrote his Natural History – we know this because various Bronze Age sites across Europe have yielded up the tiny little stones – and no doubt Italian peasants were still eating them. But aristocrats like Pliny would surely not have deigned to touch such poor food – much as I do not touch the elderberries which currently weigh purple and heavy on their bushes here in Vienna but whose weak and watery taste I came to despise when I picked them as a schoolboy in the English hedgerows.
Coming back to Lucullus, he was also known for his eating habits. His over-the-top banquets in particular were to become legendary, giving rise to the English word “lucullan”, as in “that dinner was lucullan” meaning that it was particularly large, lavish, and ostentatious (I add this etymological factoid because my wife is fond of using the equivalent Italian word “luculliano” of certain meals; it might interest her to know its provenance). If I mention this aspect of Lucullus’s lifestyle it is because of a recent lunch – not lucullan but definitely many notches above the ordinary – which I shared with an old colleague. After a starter of marinaded char with beer radish, apple and woodruff, followed by a main dish of grilled sturgeon with baby kohlrabi, Risina beans, Meyer lemon and stewed onions, all washed down with a glass of white wine, we both took for dessert a curd-sour cherry tart with hay milk ice cream. It was actually that delicious sour cherry tart that precipitated this post, not my meeting in the woods with the wild cherry.
I must admit to having been a bit sneaky with my readers, having written up to now as if there were only one type of edible cherry. In fact, as all cherry lovers will know, there are two: the sweet cherry, Prunus avium, and the sour cherry, Prunus cerasus.
For the biologically-minded among my readers, it might interest them to know that P. cerasus is actually a hybrid between our friend P. avium and another species of cherry tree, P. fruticosa, or dwarf cherry. This friendly intermingling of genes must have occurred on the Iranian Plateau or in Eastern Europe where the two species’s natural habitats overlap. As its common name suggests, P. fruticosa is believed to have provided the sour cherry tree its smaller size, but it is also thought to be responsible for its tarter tasting fruit. It seems that the hybrids took on a life of their own (“stabilised”, I believe is the scientific word for this) and interbred to form a new, distinct species. The wonders of biology …
I can personally vouch to the smaller stature of the sour cherry tree and to the greater tartness of its fruit. As a young boy, staying at my French grandmother’s house over a summer holiday, it came to pass that my grandmother decided to visit a first cousin of hers who was staying in her country house some kilometers away. She took me and my sister along with her. It was a delightfully faded house with furnishings that were rather threadbare and old fashioned: my mother rather reluctantly inherited it many years later, commenting that it would be more work than it was worth. Having politely pecked the old lady on the cheek and suffered through comments about how much we had grown since last we had met, we were allowed to run off into the garden, leaving the two old biddies to settle down to a nice cup of tea and a gossip. In that garden, tucked away in a corner, we discovered this small tree covered with bright red cherries, all very easy to reach – no clambering up ladders into this tree. Alas! A couple of cherries were enough to dissuade me from going further. They were too sour for my little mouth. I was disconsolate, although when my grandmother took a large bag of the cherries back home with her, I realized that I had stumbled across the source of those fabulous cherries that filled glass jars such as this one which stood in serried ranks on a shelf in the cellar.
My grandmother made assiduous use of those cherries, baking tarts such as the one I had eaten in my non-lucullan but still exceedingly yummy lunch. Memories, memories …
Of course, we love cherries not just for their fruit but also for their flowers in Spring.
Here, the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese have surpassed us all. They have taken their local species of cherry tree (I should note in passing that there are at least 60 species of cherry worldwide) and over the ages have coaxed them into giving fabulous blooms in Spring.
In turn, cherry blossoms have coaxed wonderful poems out of Asian poets. Here, for instance, is a short poem by the late 9th century Japanese poet Otomo no Juronushi.
Everyone feels grief
when cherry blossoms scatter.
Might they then be tears –
those drops of moisture falling
in the gentle rains of spring?
While here we have Li Yu, terrible ruler (he was the last ruler of the Southern Tang dynasty in the late 10th century) but wonderful poet.
Beneath the moon, before the steps, all cherry blossom has fallen,
Enwreathed in smoke, she looks sorrowful lying in bed.
She feels the same regret today as one long year ago.
Both braids like cloud in disarray, her face is wan and sallow,
The crimson corset wet from wiping tears.
But what’s the reason why she suffers so?
She lies in a drunken dream before the window.
These biological wonders have been carried all over the world to amaze and delight. Many years ago, when we lived in Washington DC, we tried to see the cherry trees in bloom there.
But the crowds were so impossibly large that we beat a hasty retreat. I have a more intimate memory from my university days in Edinburgh. There was a little square, Nicolson Square, just across from the University Drama Society’s theatre space which I used to haunt. I would often pass through the square on my way to and from the other university buildings. It was densely planted along its sides with cherry trees which had an intensely pink flower. In the Spring it was a delight, as you walked first under sprays, then, as the petals fell, through drifts, of pink. This photo, from those years, gives a small idea of the loveliness.
That brief blaze of pink was a harbinger of the (weak) sun and (relative) warmth to come after the long, long, dark, dark, cold, cold months of the Scottish winter. And it always happened just when we had to hole up in the library to study for our end-of-year exams! Such is life …
wild cherry tree: https://www.waldwissen.net/waldwirtschaft/waldbau/pflege/lwf_waldbau_vogelkirsche/index_DE
wild cherry tree bark: https://www1.wdr.de/verbraucher/wohnen/service-garten-borken-100.html
wild cherry fruit: https://vollwert-blog.de/wilde-vogelkirschen/
bird eating cherries: https://www.fotocommunity.de/photo/kirschen-essen-vogel-chrisi-online/17347944
wild versus domesticated cherry: https://vollwert-blog.de/wilde-vogelkirschen/
Pliny’s Natural History: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_History_(Pliny)
Villa Borghese gardens: http://www.garden.it/chicotti/i-giardini-segreti-di-villa-borghese-giardino-dei-fiori
Prunus avium range: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prunus_avium
Sour cherry: https://gourmandistan.com/2012/05/20/short-sour-cho-chweet-cherry-season/
Glass jar full of cherries: http://lesgourmandesastucieuses.blogspot.com/2011/07/comment-conserver-vos-cerises-2eme.html
Cherry tree in bloom: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/fotos/wild-cherry-tree
Cherry trees blooming in Japan: https://www.redduckpost.com/cherry-blossoms-in-japan-can-you-rely-on-the-forecast/
Cherry trees blooming in Washington DC: https://washington.org/DC-guide-to/national-cherry-blossom-festival
Nicolson square: https://www.facebook.com/lostedinburgh/posts/nicolson-square-spring-1972-lovely/1530993553624989/