By Lee Reich, Associated Press
My harbinger of spring is not the robin, which anyway often decides to stay here all winter, but a plant called cornelian cherry (Cornus mas).
Most years, the tree is swathed in a show of small, yellow blossoms by the first day of spring as far north as the 42nd parallel, a latitude that stretches from southern New York through Chicago to southern Oregon. And the show is not fleeting; it carries on for weeks.
Cornelian cherry is a relative of the flowering dogwood, and eventually grows to a similar height of about 25 feet. The tree is not at all finicky about soil, and it transplants easily, grows moderately fast, lives a long time and has no serious pest problems.
Besides its spring show, cornelian cherry is no slouch the rest of the year. In winter, the tree maintains a tidy appearance, livened by flaking bark patched with muted shades of tan and gray. Throughout summer, the tree sports healthy, satiny green leaves that, most years, turn mahogany red in the fall.
Summer and fall also bring fruits, which, unknown to most people, are edible. The fruits — oval, fire-engine red, with a single stone — look a lot like grocers’ cherries but are not related to them at all. The word “cornelian” refers to the similarity in color of the fruit to cornelian (or carnelian) quartz.
Except in recent times, humans have enjoyed eating these fruits — for the past 7,000 years, in fact. At a site in northern Greece, Neolithic cave dwellers left traces of their meals of cornelian cherry, along with remains of einkorn wheat, barley, lentils and peas. The fruit was popular in ancient Greece and Rome (and the tree provided a durable wood for chariot axles).
By the 18th century, cornelian cherry was common in English gardens, and shops sold rob de cornis, a thickened, sweet syrup of cornelian cherry fruits. You could find the fruits for sale in European markets even up to the end of the 19th century.
For some reason, cornelian cherry has gone by the wayside; you won’t find it on a supermarket shelf, probably not even at a farmers’ market. That’s the fruit. The tree itself is another story. It’s widely planted, strictly as an ornamental, its red fruits not usually eaten but adding to the visual show in summer.
SO MUCH FOR SO LITTLE EFFORT
In flavor and appearance, cornelian cherries are very similar to tart cherries. But while tart cherry needs care to fend off pests, you can expect annual harvests from cornelian cherry with little or no attention to spraying. Even pruning can be more or less dispensed with.
Despite the early bloom, fruit production rarely suffers because of the extended flowering period and the flowers’ inherent tolerance for frost. The flowers are not completely self-fertile, so cross-pollination increases fruit production. For cross-pollination, plant two different varieties of cornelian cherry. Or convince your neighbor to also plant one.
If you were to wander into forests of eastern Europe and western Asia, where the plant is native, you would find wild cornelian cherries with fruits that are barrel-shaped, pear-shaped, oval and round; colors would vary from pink to almost black. You would also taste a range of flavors, in addition to getting twice as much vitamin C as you would from an equal weight of oranges.
Varieties of cornelian cherry available from nurseries generally reflect the plant’s present use mostly as an ornamental. Examples include Golden Glory, an upright, columnar plant; Nana, a dwarf plant; Elegantissima, with creamy white leaf variegations; and Flava, with showy, yellow fruits.