Northern Michigan Cherries: A Delightful Introduction to the Fruit

Every year, droves of people converge upon Traverse City, drawn by the vibrant atmosphere of the National Cherry Festival. They indulge in a plethora of cherry-infused dishes and beverages at local restaurants. It’s no secret that Traverse City and other towns in Northern Michigan are renowned for their exceptional cultivation of sweet and tart cherries. But do you know how Northern Michigan earned its title as the Cherry Capital? In this article, we’ll explore the world of Northern Michigan cherries. We’ll delve into the best growing areas, different cherry varieties to try, and where you can find Northern Michigan cherries across the country.

Cherry Challenges: The Fruit of Labor

Have you ever considered the effort involved in producing a harvest of cherries while enjoying their juicy explosion of flavor? Cherry trees are susceptible to pests and diseases, necessitating a range of preventive measures to ensure a healthy crop. Northern Michigan’s sandy landscapes, such as the majority of Old Mission Peninsula, provide ideal conditions for cherry cultivation. According to Nikki Rothwell, a Fruit Educator and Michigan State University Extension Specialist, cherries prefer rolling hills and well-drained soil. They don’t thrive in areas with heavy soil that retains excessive moisture.

As temperatures fluctuate during the brief growing season, various species of insects pose threats to cherry trees. Additionally, diseases like brown rot and pests like mites, cherry and black cherry fruit flies, and borers can harm the fruit. Fortunately, Northern Michigan farmers combat these challenges with Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This holistic approach to pest control considers the insects’ life cycles and their interactions with the environment. It ensures that farmers use the most economical and least harmful practices to manage pests effectively.

Sweet Cherries: A Coveted Delight

Sweet cherries are the most famous and sought-after type, ready to be savored without any preparation. They are the cherries you pick at a farm or find at a farmer’s market, popping them into your mouth with a sense of joy. You’ll also find sweet cherries at the bottom of your yogurt cup or adorning your ice cream cone. Michigan primarily focuses on processing sweet cherries, with most being destined for the canner market for yogurt production (dark sweet types), while the rest are used in the brine market to create maraschino cherries (lighter-colored sweet types).

Michigan boasts around 7,500 acres of sweet cherry orchards, which translates to approximately 800,000 trees. The majority of these farms are located in Northern Michigan, specifically in counties like Antrim, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau. Popular sweet cherry varieties in Michigan include Emperor Francis, Gold, Napoleon, and Ulster. However, there are also lesser-known—but equally delicious—varieties such as Benton, Attika, Kristen, Cavalier, and the Pearl series (Black Pearl, Ebony Pearl, Burgundy Pearl, and Radiance Pearl). Rainier and Gold Star cherries stand out among sweet cherries with their golden hue. They are perfect for enjoying fresh or adding to a variety of recipes!

Tart Cherries: A Tangy Treat

Despite their name, tart cherries won’t necessarily make you pucker up, especially once they’ve been cooked! Tart cherries have lower sugar content and higher acidity compared to sweet cherries, making them perfect for baking, cooking, and drying. These cherries feature a vibrant red flesh, and they are the reason why Northern Michigan is renowned for its cherries.

Michigan boasts an astounding 32,000 acres of tart cherry orchards throughout the state, accounting for over 3.5 million tart cherry trees. Northern Michigan, specifically Antrim, Manistee, Benzie, Leelanau, and Grand Traverse counties, produces 50 percent of the nation’s tart cherries. The primary tart cherry variety is Montmorency, which is synonymous with the National Cherry Festival and Traverse City. Another notable variety is the Balaton, named after a lake in its native Hungary.

Tart cherries find their way into a variety of culinary creations. The most common method of utilizing them for baking involves combining a 5-pound batch of tart cherries with one pound of sugar to produce “five-plus-one” cherries. This mixture can be stored and frozen for later use or used immediately as a pie filling, crumble ingredient, or in other delectable baked goods. Tart cherries are also excellent when dried and added to summer salads or enjoyed on their own. Additionally, their high antioxidant and vitamin C content makes them a great choice for juicing.

The Journey of Northern Michigan Cherries

Northern Michigan cherries find their way into various markets. Sweet cherries grown, picked, and processed in Michigan are often used in yogurt or ice cream products shipped worldwide. Fresh sweet cherries are frequently distributed to large Midwestern cities while also being enjoyed locally. On the other hand, tart cherries grown in Northern Michigan are primarily processed into cherry concentrate, juice, purees, pie filling, and dried cherries. Food processing companies in Traverse City, Elk Rapids, Ludington, and Frankfort work closely with growers, shipping the resulting products throughout Michigan and the rest of the country. So, if you come across any of these cherry-based products in your market or grocery store, chances are they were made with cherries grown not far from your doorstep.


Northern Michigan cherries are a true delight. From the vibrant sweet cherries to the tangy tart cherries, the region’s cherries bring joy to countless people. The sandy landscapes, rolling hills, and favorable climate provide an excellent environment for cherry cultivation. So, whether you’re enjoying fresh cherries or savoring cherry-infused delicacies, you can appreciate the hard work and dedication that goes into producing these delicious fruits.