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Market Watch: Plum-cherry hybrids find a sweet spot

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HANFORD, Calif. — Combining the high sugar and flavor of cherries with the larger fruit size and extended season of plums has been a longstanding dream for fruit breeders, but such crosses are difficult to make successfully so that the hybrids yield abundant high-quality fruit. Zaiger's Genetics of Modesto, the inventors of Pluots and Apriums, managed the trick, and the fruit started showing up several years ago in very small quantities at upstate farmers markets; this year vendors at local farmers markets have begun offering plum-cherry hybrids, and the first commercial orchard has started bearing fruit.

That's 18 acres farmed by the Warmerdam family in Hanford, south of Fresno, which John Warmerdam walked through last Monday, before deciding to harvest this weekend. The trees look just like plum trees, and the fruits of his major variety, Pixie Sweet, look like tiny reddish plums, an inch and a quarter in diameter; the flesh is yellow-amber, with two telltale cherry features: a pink ring underneath the skin and a very small seed. It would take imagination to detect cherry in the flavor, but ripe examples are very sweet, rich and fruity, with a definite something extra.

As is often the case for these novel hybrids, the concept and flavor are compelling but the nomenclature is confusing. The Zaigers tested the variety as 33MA536 before applying for a patent under the name Pixie Sweet. Originally they called such crosses Cherums (for cherry-plum hybrids with cherry genes and characteristics predominant) or Plerries (predominantly plum).

Recently, however, Kingsburg Orchards, large growers of specialty stone fruit, applied for the trademark for Cherum, according to their sales manager, Dan Spain, who added that they had not yet found a plum-cherry hybrid worthy of producing commercially. Family Tree Farms, owned by another branch of the same Jackson family that owns Kingsburg Orchards, has planted 10 acres of another plum-cherry hybrid, Gold Nugget, from another breeder (they won't say who) and will start marketing the fruit in a week or so.

None of these varieties has anything to do with the fruits that have long been known as "cherry plums," which are actually myrobalan plums (Prunus cerasifera) native to Eurasia, and have no cherry ancestry. Most myrobalans offer indifferent fruit quality, but some years ago Zaiger released two hybrids of myrobalan and Asian plum that are quite tasty. All Zaiger's hybrids, older and recent, result from conventional breeding (applying pollen of one parent to the flower of another), and not from genetic modification.

Warmerdam, 36, has a boyish enthusiasm for fine fruit, combined with a cautious appreciation of what it takes — good genes, growing practices and handling — to successfully produce and market a new fruit type. He has a track record for innovation, having placed a big, successful bet on early-ripening Sequoia cherries, and is one of three California farmers sharing the rights to new, very hush-hush varieties of gold kiwis.

His family has the exclusive rights to grow and sell commercially Zaiger's small-fruited plum-cherry hybrids, which he is marketing, for this season at least, under the name "Verry Cherry plums." The name Pixie, which Warmerdam may apply to this class of fruits, "is a nerdy play on words," he explains, because in breeding parlance it's plum x cherry, or PXC. His Pixie Sweets will appear by the middle of next week (about July 4) in select Whole Foods stores in the Los Angeles area and at Grow in Manhattan Beach.

Farmers market growers are allowed to buy up to 100 trees of Pixie Sweet, and about a dozen sell the fruit under such names as Cherub and Cherrium. Murray Family Farms' crop was snapped up last week by U-pickers and purveyors, but Arnett Farms of Fresno will offer the fruit Saturday (June 30) at the Torrance and Irvine farmers markets; Sunday at Brentwood, Hollywood, Mar Vista and Studio City; and Tuesday at Culver City.

What does one do with such special fruit? After obtaining a flat of Murray's Pixie Sweets, Shannon Swindle, pastry chef of Craft Los Angeles, offered them fresh for dessert. Shiho Yoshikawa of Sweet Rose Creamery made a sorbet. Preserves would be another obvious use.

Warmerdam also has a new, as yet unnamed plum-cherry variety, slightly larger, purplish with a green background, which ripens in mid-August and is said to be even more sweet and flavorful. He has just grafted over 3 acres to this variety, so the first small crop should be available next year. Murray and Arnett have this variety too.

It seems likely that we'll be seeing a lot more plum-cherry hybrids before long. "In many ways they're a grower's dream," said Warmerdam. "They set very easily, they hold well on the tree and they're easy to handle. The real challenge is whether we can get good production while maintaining the flavor qualities." If so, he adds, "my vision is to grow thousands of acres."

A flat peach

Another novel and most flavorful fruit that is being introduced commercially this week is a bright yellow clingstone flat peach that Family Tree Farms is marketing as Peach Pie. Advance samples tasted at the farm's research and testing facility in Goshen last Monday had deep yellow-orange skin and flesh, and a sweet, rich, spicy flavor of clingstone peaches (the kind that are used for canning and never have red, which would bleed in the can). In ripe specimens (and ripeness is key), the variety fully lives up to its Peach Pie moniker. They'll be sold in Southern California at Bristol Farms.

What's the real name for this variety? Daniel Jackson, my host, declined to identify it, but it certainly resembles TangOs (patented as NJF16, which was bred at Rutgers, where the first modern flat peach, Stark Saturn, originated around 1985.

Blenheims are here

The moment that apricot lovers wait all year for has arrived, as Michael Cirone (See Canyon) will show up next Wednesday at Santa Monica with his prized Blenheims from San Luis Obispo, sweet, tender and juicy, with an irresistible musky, honeyed perfume. More than usually, his 'cots took their own sweet time ripening, but in both quality and quantity the crop looks outstanding, says Cirone.

Unlike most other apricot varieties, Blenheims ripen from the inside out, and they are very easily bruised when ripe. To bring home premium specimens in good condition, get to the market early, look for freshly displayed (not yet pawed through) fruit, and spread them out in a single layer in a Pan-a-Pack carton or a flat box with a padded bottom.

food@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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