Cornelian Cherry

This cold-hardy tree offers more than just pretty blossoms.

Credit: John Glover

Abundant cherry-like fruit and colourful blossoms make this cold-hardy dogwood a genuine delight

The first cornelian cherry I encountered won a permanent place in my heart for the welcome flood of sunshine it brought to a sombre winter landscape. Even in February this cheery fellow can put out puffs of pale-yellow blossoms to decorate his naked branches.

Not your usual cherry tree, thought I, but then I learned it wasn’t a cherry at all. Cornus mas is actually a member of the dogwood or cornel tribe, and mas means masculine, in the robust sense.

Robust it is, and more so than some of its brethren, for the species and most cultivars can survive temperatures down to –34°C, and even its tiny flowers are frost-hardy. Far more forgiving of poor, very wet or very dry soil, Cornus mas can adapt over a wide pH range and thrive in full sun or partial shade.

This cornel offers more than just pretty blossoms. In late summer or autumn its flowers may be followed by fruit, especially if two or more cultivars are planted together and if you include the extra-fruitful ‘Redstone.’ When ripe the fruit becomes a rich, translucent red – unless of course you choose the golden ‘Flava’ or ‘Yellow’ cultivars. Reminiscent in flavour of a sweet pie cherry, the fruit of Cornus mas is olive-shaped and some 2.5 centimetres in length. However, breeders have been tinkering, and from the Central Botanical Garden in Kiev have come ‘Pioneer’ and ‘Red Star’ with four- and three-centimetre fruit respectively. The “cherries” are aromatic, juicy and extra sweet in both cases; ‘Flava’ fruit, on the other hand, has a touch of tartness, which lends it well to the making of jams and conserves. In general, cornelian “cherries” are so packed with pectin that you won’t have to add any.

However, the tasty fruit may be pre-empted by birds and squirrels that know it’s hidden up under the foliage. That foliage is ornamental too, with leathery ovate leaves furrowed deeply by veins that curve out to run parallel to the margins. Darker green above, they may even take on a purplish blush in summer and flare up to stronger hues in autumn. In spring the foliage of ‘Aurea’ is golden and then chartreuse in midsummer, but if you consider solid-colour foliage ho-hum, look for the white-margined ‘Variegata.’ Or there’s the pink and yellow variegated ‘Aureoelegantissima.’

When the leaves depart you’ll be left with bare branches that bring winter appeal. Red-brown with grey patches, the bark eventually curls up and peels off at maturity, an effect which will be easier to see if you train your cornelian cherry as a tree, rather than letting it bush out into a multi-stemmed shrub. For this purpose, consider ‘Golden Glory,’ which is more vigorous and upright than the species; it’s also more floriferous but a few degrees less cold tolerant (presumably happier in the upper part of zone 4). ‘Golden Glory’ may reach 4.5 to six metres with a similar spread; with less chlorophyll with which to photosynthesize, ‘Aurea’ restrains itself to two metres by three metres.

Cornelian cherry blossom clusters are somewhat retiring, needing a dark wall, fence or evergreens in the background to set them off. And remember to plant the trees where they’ll be visible through your window – unless you plan to sit outside in February!

The following plant is hardy to the zone number indicated: Cornus mas – zone 4

Barbara Chernick lives in Sooke on Lower Vancouver Island, where she gardens and writes a weekly garden column; she’s also editor of the Cider Press of the B.C. Fruit Testers Association.