Have You Seen This Cherry? The Quest for Kentucky’s Lost Dyehouse Cherry
First planted in Lincoln County, Kentucky, and in 1878 called “the most valuable of all cherries for the South” in The Gardener’s Monthly and Horticulturist, the sour Dyehouse cherry has gone missing. Dr. David S. Shields has asked Kentucky to help him find it.
Dr. David S. Shields is the McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina and author of the recent book Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine. Shields is not only the leading historian of the foodways of the Deep South, but has been instrumental in the revival of traditional South Carolina cuisine through his work with the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.
It has been Shields’ business to help identify and revive lost varieties of Southern crops that once defined Southern cuisine. That brings us to his interest in the elusive Dyehouse.
A dominant pie variety at the turn of the last century, the Dyehouse was last known to be planted in the 1930s.
Sour, also known as tart or pie, cherries are perfect for use in pies and preserves, as opposed to “sweet” cherries like the ubiquitous Bing. The Dyehouse cherry was related to the Early Richmond cherry, a variety that was transported from England by early American colonists, and likely named after Richmond, Virginia.
“Ground zero in Kentucky is Crab Orchard,” Dr. Shields told Eat Kentucky, referencing the Lincoln County town near where the Dyehouse variety originated. Accounts hold a Mr. Dyehouse first grew his eponymous variety of cherry from a pit sometime in the mid-19th Century. H.T. Harris of Stanford introduced the variety regionally and nationally.
Dr. Shields shared this profile of the Dyehouse cherry with the Appalachian Food Summit Working Group:
In southern orchards the sour Dyehouse established itself as a dark red pie cherry at the beginning of the twentieth century. W. T. Hood, one of the South’s most energetic nurserymen, listed the variety’s virtues in his 1907 catalogue: “It produces very regular annual crops; fruit medium; skin bright red, darkened in the sun; flesh soft, juicy, tender, sprightly subacid, rather rich; partakes of both the Morello and Duke in growth, wood, and fruit. We consider it superior to Early Richmond.” A seedling discovered in 1860 by a man named Dyehouse in Lincoln County, Kentucky, it quickly became a fixture in the orchards of central Kentucky. Nurseryman Henry T. Harris popularized it nationally in the 1890s. Some thought it “the most valuable of all Cherries for the South” shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. There was one liability with the variety that proved troublesome in the long term: the Dyehouse did not take to grafting well. It would not attach to the stock wood. This hindered propagation [Kansas State Horticultural Society, The Cherry in Kansas 1900, 75.] Extinct?
The now lost Dyehouse cherry was truly a horticultural gift to America, and was widely grown and praised by gardeners everywhere. Surely there’s one still blissfully producing tasty cherries somewhere, possibly right here in the Commonwealth.
“I’m sure the greatest Kentucky pie contest ever is in the offing if this gets tracked down,” Shields told Eat Kentucky.
Have you seen this cherry?
Period profiles with detailed descriptions of the Dyehouse cherry can be found at the links below.
Cherries of New York,by U.P. Hedrick (1915)
Cherries of Utah, by Francis M. Coe (February, 1935)