Focus on Cornelian Cherry

Updated: Sep 26

Let's start with a riddle…

Q: When is a cherry not a cherry?

A: When it’s an imposter from the dogwood family.

True Cherries vs Dogwood Cherries

Prunus Cerasus Fruit

True cherries are members of the Prunus genus and there are quite a few to choose from, including sweet cherry (P. avium), sour cherry (P. cerasus), Nanking cherry (P. tomentosa), black cherry (P. serotina), Mongolian cherry (P. fruticosa), sand cherry (P. pumila), chokecherry (P. virginiana) and bird cherry (P. padus), among others. All of these are edible straight off the bush or tree except the last two species, which contain high amounts of natural cyanide and are best used to make jellies and jams.

Dogwoods, on the other hand, are considered by most gardeners to be flowering ornamental trees, but some also have edible fruits. The most common of these fits both categories as Korean Dogwood (Cornus kousa) has beautiful white or pink bracts, followed by warty rounded red fruits that have a mango flavour in their prime. Our second example is a bit of a rarity, as Cornus officinalis is a native of Asia, and its astringent red fruits are used in traditional Chinese medicines.

Cornus kousa fruits
Cornus kousa fruits

Cornelian Cherry Dogwood Tree

Cornus mas fruits
Cornus mas fruits

Our real focus here is Cornus mas or Cornelian Cherry. Its Latin name makes reference to its hard wood (Cornus = horn) and mas or male, which speaks to its adaptability as a plant species. The common name Cornelian Cherry is a comparison of the bright red fruits to the semi-precious gemstone Carnelian. This species is native to southern Europe, Turkey, and southwestern Asia where it has long been used as a food staple, but here in North America, we have been utilizing it as an ornamental. Perhaps the most common of these is ‘Golden Glory’, a compact shade tree with a heavy blooming habit. The only other cultivars that I’ve come across over the years are variegated forms such as ‘Tricolor’ (pink highlights), ‘Aureo-Elegantissima’ (gold variegation), ‘Variegata’ (white marginal edging), and ‘Aurea’ (golden foliage) but all of these are somewhat prone to scorch in full sun exposures.

Cornelian Cherry Tree for All-Season Interest