Cherries are legend here in these valleys. Back at the turn of the century, and when I say that, I still mean the one before last, the cherries grown here were reported to be as large as plums and equally sweet and juicy. They were famous for being the best in all of North America, even better than the Okanagan which now grows many of our cherries. They were famous right across the country. J.T. Bealby, a Nelson fruit rancher, was quoted as saying:
"One of the most wonderful sights in a British Columbia orchard, and more especially a Kootenay orchard, is the cherry-trees when laden with their snow-white blossoms. Every branch, from its divergence from a large limb or the main trunk, right away to the outermost twig, is thickly feathered with clusters of blossom, and tufts of bloom cling even to the main trunk and large limbs. This is true of every variety of cherry alike, sour as well as sweet. The crops are, as a rule, enormously heavy -- so much so that the trees, and this applies to apples, pears, and plums, as well as to cherries -- have to be well supported with props to prevent them from breaking down under the loads they carry, and even then it is not an unusual thing for one or more branches to split off before the fruit can be gathered."
Indeed that bit about props is true. My parents have two very old apple trees in their yard (well over 100 yrs by now...they were put in shortly after the house was originally built) and last year that is essentially what happened. One of the branches on one of the trees was so heavy with fruit that the branch broke and my father had to prop it up and mend it hoping to save the apples on that particular branch long enough for them to ripen. But it is an old tree, so some years it takes a rest, but then there are years like last where there is a real bumper crop. Not bad for an old tree whose trunk is almost completely hollow that it totally baffles us that there is any fruit at all. But back to the story of the cherries.
Unfortunately, about 1933 a mysterious cherry disease hit destroying the thriving industry. The first symptoms were noticed at Willow Point, just around the bend from where I live. At the time, it was called, "Little Cherry Disease." Most disheartening was that infected trees only became obvious about two weeks before harvest. By this point, the damage was done, the cherries were small, lacked taste and sweetness, and were for the most part wormy. Once a tree was infected, there was nothing to be done but to cut it down, as the cherries from then on would be as such. By about the 50's the disease had decimated the industry and all cherry trees were ordered to be cut down to try to stop the spread which by now was determined to be transmitted by infected insects.
At the time, the source of the outbreak was not known, but it has since been determined that Japanese Ornamental cherries were carrying the disease in symptomless form. There were three specimens of these trees growing not far from the original outbreak on the property of Selwyn Gwillym Blaylock, the rich vice-president and general manager of a mining smelting company which later became known as Cominco (this property is just a ways down the road in the other direction from me). He had a passion for gardening and had beautiful grounds surrounding his estate. The grounds purportedly featured one of every species of tree native to Canada as well as many other ornamental trees and flowering shrubs. Blaylock encouraged frequent guests, including foreign dignitaries to bring gifts of trees and shrubs from their native land to add to his collection. But this was not how he had acquired the particular trees in question. They had been imported by Blaylock himself. He had officially inquired about the importation of Japanese Ornamental Cherries and had been told that the trees were diseased and not to be imported. He decided to smuggle them in anyways.
So thus is the story of cherries in the Kootenays. Infected trees were to be removed, but it was tough as there were and still are so many wild cherries growing out in the woods which of course, by this point has probably also been diseased. Cherry orchards have since been re-established around Creston, the far end of Kootenay lake, and indeed the cherries are good. But the industry has never gone back to what it once was.