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Plants from the Ground Up

Cornus mas – Cornelian Cherry

I love everything about Cornus mas, from blossom to leaf to fruit! They just may be the perfect edible landscape plant for your garden too. Sunny-yellow four-petaled flowers appear in clusters of 10 to 25 per bunch all up and down the grayish bark, before the leaves emerge—you can see these glowing shrub/trees light up spring gardens. They flower even earlier than Forsythia, a real treat when the winter blues are starting to get you down. Shiny-green ovate to oblong leaves which are oppositely arranged make the tree an excellent backdrop to your summer flowering shrubs and perennials. Bright-red fruits adorn the Cornelian Cherry in early fall, hanging like jewels against the green-turning-yellow foliage. The common name actually comes from the resemblance to the semi-precious gemstone Carnelian. There are several wonderful cultivars available that have larger and even yellow fruit! The fruit, which are technically drupes, have a taste similar to a cranberry/sour cherry mix and must be dead ripe to be palatable, they should be falling from the tree at harvest or they will be very astringent. Though the fruit can be eaten out of hand, it is much more popularly made in to preserves or dried. These plants take several years to bear fruit, so some patience is required. Although Cornelian Cherries are self-fertile, they are so late to fruit that many gardeners mistake their trees as being male. That said, planting two cultivars ensures a good fruit set.

The native range of Cornus mas is Southern Europe to the Middle East—they have been used in those regions for centuries. In Iran and Turkey they are traditionally eaten with salt, and in the past the fruit were brined and used like olives. In Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Greece among others the fruit is used to make liquor such as Raki or Vodka. The dried seeds can be ground and used as a coffee substitute. In China the fruit has long been used to tonify the kidneys. Cornus mas has very hard wood that has been traditionally used for tool handles and the exfoliating bark yields a red dye that has been used for dying many things including traditional Fezzesl

Cornus mas are low maintenance plants that can tolerate a range of soil types including alkaline soil. They do best in full sun with adequate moisture and are hardy in USDA zones 4-8. Cornelian Cherry can be grown from sowing ripe seed or from cutting in summer. If you are looking for a specific cultivar you will need to buy grafted trees or take scion and graft them yourself.  

For more photos and available cultivars, see Cornus mas at the Forestfarm Store.

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