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Nicholas Culpeper catalogued the many medicinal uses of the cherry

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, London, Medicine, Plants on Friday, 24 February 2012

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This edited article about fruits originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 651 published on 6 July 1974.

Cries of London, picture, image, illustration

“Cherry Ripe” in St James’s Place – one of the Cries of London

Robert Herrick’s famous poem, Cherry Ripe, was inspired by the cries of the cherry-sellers hawking their wares in the streets of London.

Since the 14th century, cherries had been brought to the town from the countryside, but it was not until the reign of Henry VIII, that cultivated varieties became available. Richard Harris, the King’s Fruiterer, brought several new types of cherry from Italy and made the first commercial plantings in Kent, in 1540.

Cherry Fairs were once held in the orchards where sales of the fruit took place. These gatherings often became boisterous affairs and were a great entertainment for the local people. Today, the fairs have given way to less spectacular auctions, held at Sittingbourne, but buyers still inspect the fruit on the trees before making their bid.

Although there are numerous varieties, they can be divided into two main groups, the sweet and the sour cherry. Sweet cherries are descended from the wild fruit, Prunus avium, which has grown in England since prehistoric times. The name, avium, means “of the birds” and was given to them because of the fondness birds have for this fruit.

Sour cherries are from the Morello Cherry, Prunus cerasus, a native of Asia, North America and the Orient.

The Roman general, Lucullus, discovered Morello trees in the city of Cerasus, in Asia Minor, during his campaigns against King Mithridates, in 63 B.C., and introduced them into Europe.

The Morello trees, smaller and more bush-like than the British wild cherry which grows to a height of between fifty and a hundred feet, can pollinate themselves, but different varieties of sweet cherry have to be planted in pairs so that they can cross-pollinate.

Over the centuries, apothecaries discovered the medicinal value of the cherry and used the fruit, stalks, fresh leaves and bark in their preparations. Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century herbalist wrote, “The gum of the cherry tree dissolved in wine is good for colds and hoarseness of the throat; mends the colour of the face, sharpens the eyesight and provokes appetite.”

The light red or brown-coloured hard wood of the cherry tree is particularly suitable for fine furniture and cabinet work and is also considered one of the best materials for fashioning tobacco pipes.

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