The Sweetest Cherry in the World Has a Sweet, Sad Story

published Jul 22, 2017
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(Image credit: Skylar Rae)

If you’ve eaten cherries in the winter, when fruit from the southern hemisphere makes its way north, you know that cherries are sweetest in season, gobbled down by the handful as close to the orchard as your luck can take you. For cherry-lovers, July is the sweetest month. And because of the discovery of a new cherry varietal, it just got even sweeter.

(Image credit: Stemlit)

We all know how a regular red cherry eats: first there’s the skin, taut or soft depending on the varietal and the fruit’s freshness, then the rush of juice that inevitably stains your shirt, then the sweet-tart flavor, pure summer on the tongue. As consumers, though, we don’t often see that red cherries come in different varietals. As the season rolls on, different trees reach their respective peaks, so while we might think we’re just buying dark, juicy cherries, we’re really getting different strains of the same varietal. Dark Bing cherries are often indistinguishable from Selah® and Tieton® cherries to untrained eyes, and brighter Sweetheart and Van cherries, although noticeably different in flavor, might not seem so different from one another if we’re not comparing them side by side. As cherry eaters, most of us don’t know to look for Benton® cherries the way we know to look for a Pink Lady® apple. (Those trademarks? They’re how the folks that have carefully tinkered with a fruit tree’s genetics to get just the right shape and flavor can guarantee other growers uphold strict growing standards.)

We do know, though, that there are also so-called yellow cherry varietals — the most common of which is the Rainier cherry, which is typically a buttery yellow blushed with peach and pinkish colors. The Rainier, named after the 14,000-plus-foot mountain in Washington, was developed by breeding two very sweet cherry varieties together. Rainiers are significantly sweeter than red cherries; if you want to talk Brix, which is the scientific scale fruit producers use to measure sweetness (and corresponds roughly to the percentage of sugar the fruit contains), red cherries generally fall into the 17 to 20 Brix range, while yellow cherries are often closer to the 19 to 23 Brix range. But the new Skylar Rae® cherry, which looks similar to a Rainier but is horticulturally really a third category of cherry, can weigh in as high as 32 Brix. That’s a sweet, sweet cherry.

But when the Toftnesses called the nursery to get help identifying the cherry, they learned something interesting: No one had ever seen a tree like theirs before. No one had tasted such sweet fruit, or seen cherries with such distinctive striped markings.

Skylar Rae® cherries, which are usually 22 to 25 Brix, haven’t been around for long. But in contrast to many of their competitors, they weren’t bred for sale by produce scientists. As their discoverers tell it, their story is the immaculate conception of the cherry world.

(Image credit: Skylar Rae)

Back in 2004, cherry growers Kim and Troy Toftness were mourning the loss of their first daughter, Skylar Rae, who was diagnosed with a rare vascular condition as an infant, and died at just 49 days old. It was a long winter; they trained themselves to find happiness in the smallest moments. When they saw rainbows, it was Skylar Rae, saying hello. They weren’t sure how they would heal.

The next summer, Troy noticed a single tree in their red cherry orchard that produced yellow cherries mottled with deep pinkish-orange spots — sometimes a sign of red cherries that simply won’t ripen. He sent his dad, Jack, who cares for the Toftness’ orchards, to cut it down, but when his dad arrived that day, a rainbow cut through the sky — a sign, in their family, that Skylar Rae was there. Jack stopped. Instead, Jack tasted the cherries, and was surprised to find they had an unusually taut skin, with firm, almost clear flesh. And they were sweeter than any cherry he’d ever tasted.

(Image credit: Stemlit)

But when the Toftnesses called the nursery to get help identifying the cherry, they learned something interesting: No one had ever seen a tree like theirs before. No one had tasted such sweet fruit, or seen cherries with such distinctive striped markings. And while trees are often crossbred within orchards for specific reasons, no one had any idea how this particular cherry came to be. But they knew they could probably sell it. And they knew that because its sweetness made people smile, they’d sell it under the name Skylar Rae.

Over the next decade, Troy and Kim worked to bring the cherry to market, planting 400 trees from that first mother tree, and then another 450 acres from those original 400 trees. Today, the trees produce about 80,000 (15-pound) cartons of cherries a year, which is small potatoes for the state of Washington. But if you’re in the right place at the right time, you might see them in the grocery store, with “Skylar Rae®” on the label — a sure sign that you’ve found pure gold at the bottom of that proverbial rainbow.