The OSU Legacy of Maraschino Cherries

A favorite topping for Sundaes, milkshakes, and the occasional cocktail, maraschino cherries are as American as it gets.   

While they’re incredibly popular, that popularity falls into two different camps of people as learned from pitching this story in The Corvallis Advocate staff meeting. One set says they’re a deliciously adorable favorite, scrumptious and delightful. And the other set that firmly believes they aren’t fit for human consumption and should be burned with fire. We’ll leave it up to you to decide which side you are on.    

But have you ever wondered where these cute little cherries come from? Most native Corvallisites have heard that the maraschino cherry was invented at Oregon State University, a fact that is both truth and fiction. Who knew there could be so much suspense floating innocently in your Shirley Temple?  

Where the Maraschino Came From   

While the modern maraschino cherry is credited to Ernest H. Wiegand, professor at OSU, maraschino cherries have been around a lot longer than that.   

According to an article by the Cooking Channel, Dominican Monks in the 16th century first distilled a wild mascara cherry in a clear liqueur. These cherries are known for their sourness and a spicy cinnamon flavor. The monks eventually arrived at a spirit known as maraschino, and this is still produced in Italy. For a long time, the liqueur and the cherries preserved in it were simply a regional luxury, but in the 1800s, they caught on and it wasn’t long before they were being consumed all over Europe and the United States.  

 Where Corvallis Came In  

Professor Wiegand became involved during the time of prohibition, but the myth that he developed the new version as a response to prohibition is false. In reality, Wiegand was approached by cherries growers in Oregon. According to an article by What’s Cooking America, Oregon has the perfect climate to grow cherries, and by the beginning of the 1900s, cherries were a popular crop. The problem for growers was that cherries are not a study crop, and the East Coast buyers wouldn’t purchase from Oregon because they said the Oregon cherries wouldn’t hold up. The cherries coming from Oregon were pickled in a brine, making them soft and squishy compared to their imported Italian counter parts.   

Professor Wiegand, after being approached by cherry growers, departed on a 6 year long scientific journey to discover a new preservation method for the cherries. Eventually, in 1931, Wiegand determined that by adding calcium salts to the pickling brine, the cherries firm up and match the consistency of Italian-imported cherries. Wiegand became the first Department Head for what was then known as the Department of Horticultural Products, now the Department of Food Science and Technology.   

We Still Have a Wiegand at OSU  

Miraculously, Wiegand’s great-grandson, Zachary Wiegand, now works in the same department at OSU as a Faculty Research Assistant, with the title of Pilot Plant Manager. When speaking of his Great-Grandfather’s inspiration, he says “He worked in many ways to support the mission [of Oregon State] and developed all kinds of guidance and bulletins to help the community and industry learn more about how to process various agricultural crops to add value. The modern maraschino came out of some of the research to help do just that, add value to an abundant crop that was grown in the region. It’s something that was really important and helped create a large industry that still exists today.”  

Zak Wiegand also says that his family didn’t really talk about his ancestor’s accomplishment. The stories that are told are based around memories of family life. “Things like how tall he was and that he had to have an improvised shower in the basement because he was too tall for the main bathtub in the house,” Wiegand says.   

Thanks to Ernest Wiegand, as well as a tariff on imported cherries, you can now find Oregon grown maraschino cherries in jars on supermarket shelves all over the United States. Wiegand’s other work included a bleaching method, allowing producers to die the cherries any color under the sun.   

Zak Wiegand is looking to add to his Great-Grandfather’s legacy, even though he doesn’t specifically work with cherries currently. “I’m working towards developing something using cherries that will be an homage to my great grandfathers work,” he says.   

It sounds like we will be held in suspense until the new creation is ready to be revealed. Luckily, we have maraschino cherries on stems to twirl as we wait.  

By Kyra Young