The cornelian cherry tree, also known as cornus mas, is an attractive addition to the garden with edible fruit and a three season interest. It is a species of dogwood native to Central and Southern Europe and Western Asia. In the US the tree grows in USDA zones 5 to 8a. It is notable for the small fruits that can be used in preserves, syrups, sweetmeats, and to flavor sherbets and distilled beverages. The tree attracts both birds and butterflies to the garden.
The cornelian cherry is a slow-growing deciduous tree or shrub that reaches a height of 15 to 25 feet and a spread of 12 to 18. With age, the cornelian cherry takes on a full, rounded shape with a dense network of branches. Leaves are a deep dark green during the spring and summer, turning a plum red color in the fall. Before the leaves appear in the spring, the cornelian cherry is covered with masses of yellow flowers in mid to late March. The flowers resemble forsythia and will last into the late spring in some areas. The flowers may not appear in southern areas as they need an extended period of chilling weather to set buds.
The fruit resemble medium-sized olives in shape and are a bright cherry red. They ripen in June and July. They are a favorite with birds and can also be used in a variety of preserves, jellies, and other culinary uses. The bark of the cornelian cherry is attractive and ranges from dark gray to reddish brown. It is scaly and exfoliating. To display the bark, you may need to remove some lower branches.
The cornelian cherry variety of dogwood will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions and pH. Although it prefers fertile, well-drained soil, it will even grow in damp clay. Plant it as a specimen tree or group severl together as an effective screen or barrier. It tolerates pruning so can be shaped to form a hedge or to become an upright tree.
Plant your cornelian cherry in full sun to partial shade and make sure the site has enough room to accommodate its spreading habit. The tree transplants easily but may take some time to establish after transplanting. Mulch well to encourage root growth. The tree should be watered regularly but can tolerate moderate drought. Other than that, the cornelian cherry needs very little care and is resistant to most pests.
The cornelian cherry will self-reproduce but this may take some time. For best results, buy stock at a nursery. If you want to grow your own, take softwood cuttings in June or July. You can also plant the seeds from the fruit but this is a more complicated process and can take a year or more to produce seedlings.