Gardening: Cornelian cherry, tree of many talents

Helps brighten dismal February days with brilliant haze of yellow flowers

I should probably start by justifying my adjective, as we tend to throw ‘fabulous’ around a lot these days.

Things or experiences that fall under this category, in my humble opinion, include 1963 Comet convertibles with the tops down, scuba diving in clear tropical waters, the 1946 movie The Big Sleep, having a cold beer at the end of a hot summer’s day and unexpectedly finding an old Ray Bradbury story that I haven’t read at the used bookstore.

So what makes Cornelian cherry, or Cornus mas, so special, aside from it being a rather obscure species of dogwood?

It is a tree of many hidden talents.

If you were to gaze upon it in early summer, I can guarantee that you would not be impressed, as there is little to see but ordinary-looking dogwood foliage (although a beautifully variegated form is available).

But if you could roll time back a few months, to say mid-February, that dreary season when the ‘Witch Hazels’ have faded but the Forsythia have yet to open, you would see a brilliant haze of tiny yellow flowers smothering the stems and contrasting beautifully against those rare clear blue winter skies.

That same tree has foliage that shifts to yellow in fall (often with reddish-purple highlights) and is much more disease resistant than its larger-flowered dogwood cousins.

But there’s more, because by midsummer it is loaded with bright red rod-shaped fruits (or drupes) that much resemble coffee berries and taste like a combination of cranberry and sour cherry.

While relatively unknown here, this fruit is highly prized in many parts of world, including eastern Europe, China, Turkey and Iran.

In fact, you can thank recent eastern European immigrants for the rise in popularity (and subsequent availability) of this species.

Couple all these attributes with its cold hardiness (Zone 4), ability to get along without pesticide sprays and its relatively compact growth habit (15’ to 20’ at maturity) and you have a real winner.

But like a 1970s K-Tel commercial, it still has more to offer – that being it’s extremely dense wood (which actually sinks in water), which is prized for making durable tool handles and was once a staple of weaponry (bows, spears, javelins) for the ancient Greeks.

It can also be shaped into thick flowering/fruiting hedgerows with some pruning, as is common in parts of Europe.

So, to say that Cornus mas is a desirable ornamental species with many side benefits is a bit of an understatement, which is why the cultivars ‘Golden Glory’ and ‘Variegata’ have also received the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Now we’ll expound on the health benefits of this rare fruit, which is high in vitamin C and is often distilled into a delicious ‘medicinal’ brandy, although you don’t have to be too sick to enjoy it. It makes fine preserves or sauces (like cranberry) and is often added to Vodka in Russia for flavouring (and, of course, for its ‘medicinal’ benefits).

So let’s recap why you might want to consider Cornelian Cherry for your own garden: it is disease resistant; blooms in late winter; has attractive autumn foliage; is relatively compact and easy to care for; has dense wood that is great for carving; and the berries make healthy preserves and liqueurs.

What more could you ask for?

Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author (hebe_acer@hotmail.com).