As you drive along the east shore of Flathead Lake in the summer, you can’t help but enjoy row after row of cherry trees in orchard after orchard blanketing both sides of Hwy 35. There are orchards on the West Shore as well and some trees in Polson, but it is the East Shore where the bulk of the Flathead cherry harvest occurs. The Flathead Lake area is known world-wide for its exceptional cherries in large part due to tourists who, like the locals, cannot resist the numerous cherry stands that line large portions of the road from the ‘Y’ to Bigfork.
There are several varieties of cherries, but the ones that really made the area famous are the Lamberts.
After the major freeze in 1989 that, in some cases, destroyed entire orchards, several growers switched to the Lapin which is a bit more resilient. The Bing cherries that so many love are also grown here, but they are actually not well suited to the weather in the valley as they tend to split when hit with the rains that often arrive from the West just as the fruit is nearly ripe. Another more recent favorite in the area is the Ranier—which is a yellow cherry with markings of red. The Sweethearts are late season cherries that extend the season into September.
The lake helps mitigate the cold temperatures in the winters so that most years blossoms emerge on healthy trees as the cherry crop begins to grow. As summer warms, the increasingly hot days followed by cool nights provide perfect conditions to produce the sweet and juicy fruit so popular to the Flathead. And if the weather cooperates and doesn’t hit the trees with rain, wind, or even frost at the wrong time, cherries abound come mid to late July through August and often into September. Although it is difficult to predict exactly when the cherries will be ripe, barring dramatic changes in the weather, most of the stands that dot the journey from Polson to Bigfork will likely open for business in the next several days—perfect timing for the annual Cherry Festival.