University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
COLD CLIMATE FRUIT TREES
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension
University of Vermont
For every climate there are certain
fruits that grow better, or may not grow at all. Even a fruit like the apple, that grows in
all states, has cultivars (cultivated varieties) that grow better in certain
regions. Buying from local nurseries in
the spring is one of the best ways to be assured that the fruit selections are
adapted to your particular area. When shopping
online and through mail-order catalogs in winter and spring, make sure what you
want has a chance to succeed in your garden.
There are quite a few tree fruits to consider for colder climates.
Apples are arguably the most common
tree fruit in cold climates, perhaps because they are the hardiest. This comes from both the cultivar and the
rootstock onto which this is grafted.
Unless you order from a specialty grower, you don’t need to worry about
which rootstock is best as the nursery has already done this.
For cold climates, such as the
northeastern states, you’ll want cultivars such as McIntosh that ripen best with
warm fall days and cool nights. Some of
the most hardy cultivars (USDA zone 3, or -30 to -40 degrees F average minimum
winter temperature) include Honeycrisp™,
Honeygold, Lodi, Northern Spy, and the relatively new Zestar!™ from the University of
Minnesota. There are several other
apples hardy to zone 4 (-20 to -30 degrees F) including Cortland, Empire,
Freedom, Gold and Red Delicious, Liberty, Paula Red, Red Rome, and
Spartan. Several heirloom cultivars to
consider are Cox Orange Pippin, Gravenstein, Wealthy, and Yellow Transparent.
Peaches are one of the tree
fruits that many gardeners want to grow, but unfortunately few
adapted to the coldest climates. Most are
hardy only to USDA zone 5 (-10 to -20 degrees F) at best, nectarines (smooth
skin peaches) even less hardy. Even if
they grow they may not fruit, having flower buds damaged at higher temperatures
than leaf buds. Flowers may be damaged
by spring frosts, especially common with apricots. Even a short mid-winter thaw
may cause buds to lose their hardiness.
Peach trees also need a long growing season to harden off for winter,
and to develop next year’s buds, something they may not get in cold climates.
An eastern exposure is best for peaches
and their relatives, warming sooner on cold spring days so less prone to frost
damage. Proximity to bodies of water
helps moderate temperatures too. Those
cultivars that may grow into zone 4 include Canadian Harmony, Contender,
Glohaven, Madison, Red Haven, and Reliance-- perhaps the most cold hardy and
popular northern peach, an introduction from the University of New Hampshire.
Most European pears are a bit
hardier (usually to zone 5) than peaches but less so than apples, so they may
not all grow reliably in the coldest climates.
Asian pears in particular are best in warmer climates. Among the hardiest European pears, perhaps
even into zone 3, are Flemish Beauty, Luscious, Parker, and Patten.
While sweet cherries are
generally only hardy to zone 5, many sour cherries grow into zone 4. If you want to try sweet cherries, those
possibly fruiting into zone 4 include Kristin, Stark Gold™, and the Cornell University
Sour cherries come in two
types. The amarelle type includes the
common pie cherry Montmorency, with fruit flattened on the ends, generally
bright red or yellow inside, and producing a clear juice. The Morello sour cherries such as Marasca
(from which the Italian liqueur and maraschino cherries are named), have
rounded fruit, bright red inside, and produce a
dark juice. Among the most hardy sour
cherries to zone 3 are Meteor (amarelle) and North Star (Morello). Surefire™ (Morello) from New York state is
late blooming, so better resists frosts.
While the European plums are
generally hardy to zone 5, and the Japanese to zone 6, the American hybrids are
hardy to zone 4 and sometimes to zone 3.
For the coldest areas, also consider hybrids of cherries and plums
called cherry-plums in the U.S. and chums in Canada. One of the main problems growing plums in the
north is that they bloom a week or two ahead of
so may be damaged by spring frosts. Empress and Shropshire are cultivars that
bloom later, so may miss these frosts. One of the hardiest of the European
plums, Mount Royal, came from Quebec in the early 1900s. The hardiest American hybrids include
Alderman, Superior, and Waneta.
In addition to hardiness, at least
three main considerations apply to choosing any tree fruit. Pick ones you like to eat, and usually buy
from markets. Also pick ones for your
space and needs. Dwarf and semi-dwarf
trees are popular as they take up less space, and bear sooner than standard
size trees. Many cultivars of tree
fruits are better suited to certain uses—eating fresh, cooking, sauces, canning
or freezing, or making juice—so determine how you might like to use them. Apples for eating fresh are often called
When buying tree fruits, it’s always
best to get at least two different cultivars that bloom at the same time for
cross pollination. Even though some may
be listed as “self-fertile” (if you have only room for one tree, look for
these), they invariably fruit better with a partner nearby (within 50 to 100
feet). Peaches, however, generally don’t
need such cross pollination.