Cornelian cherry: flower, varieties & location

Regina
Regina
Regina
Regina

I studied horticultural sciences at university and in my free time you can find me in my own patch of land, growing anything with roots. I am particularly passionate about self-sufficiency and seasonal food.

Favourite fruit: quince, cornelian cherry and blueberries
Favourite vegetables: peas, tomatoes and garlic

Cornelian cherry was an important fruit species in former times and is found in many places in hedgerows and forest edges. We give tips on planting, harvesting and processing Cornelian cherry.

cornelian cherry
Cornelian cherries were long considered an important fruit tree [Photo: Oksana Shevchenko/ Shutterstock.com]

In the Middle Ages, Cornelian cherry was considered an important fruit tree along with medlars (Mespilus germanica), but fell into oblivion again and is now a ubiquitous wild fruit found in many gardens. In this article you will learn everything about the Cornelian cherry, its history, location requirements, planting and care, as well as the use of the stone fruit.

Cornelian cherry: flower, origin and characteristics

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) belongs to the dogwood family (Cornaceae) and occurs naturally from Europe to Asia Minor. The wild form is often found in bird hedgerows, forest edges and sparse mixed forests. Since ancient times, the edible Cornelian cherry has been used as food, the oldest finds of seeds in clay pots date back to the Iron Age from 800 BC.

The Cornelian cherry can live for more than 100 years. During this time, it grows into a tree or large shrub measuring 6 to 8 m in height and width. It grows about 20 to 30 cm in height per year, making it one of the less competitive, comparatively slow-growing woody plants. On the reddish-brown and greenish-grey shoots sit the ovate-elliptical leaves, which are glossy green in summer and yellow to reddish-orange in autumn. Typically, the leaves are hairy on the upper and lower sides, wavy at the edges, and 4 to 10 cm long. The sunny yellow flowers of the cornelian cherry, which are in spherical umbels, appear from February to April, long before the first leaves appear. They are a valuable source of food for all kinds of pollinators such as bees and bumblebees.

Blossom of the cornelian cherry
Cornus mas has an early yellow flower and typical green-red young twigs [Photo: Mariyana M/ Shutterstock.com]

From mid-August to the end of September, the 2 cm large, oval-round, edible fruits of the cornelian cherry ripen, which now turn deep red and become soft. The drupe surrounds itself with tasty, fruity and sour tasting, pleasantly sweet pulp. When fully ripe, the fruits fall off and thus also provide food for numerous animals such as dormice and various birds in the autumn. Cornelian cherry is a rich-bearing wild fruit tree that yields 20 to 40 kg per shrub, and up to 70 kg per year on old plants.

The most popular varieties

Breeding work on the Cornelian cherry has been ongoing for more than 100 years, nowadays mainly at the HBLFA Schönbrunn in Vienna and at the Institute of Fruit Breeding in Bojnice in Slovakia, as well as in Bulgaria and the Caucasus region. Here the main focus is on the fruit size and taste. We present the most popular varieties of Cornelian cherry and their properties.

  • ˈAureaˈ: Slow-growing Cornelian cherry with striking light yellow-green foliage and a growth height of up to 4 m.
  • ˈJolicoˈ: Cornelian cherry with fruits over 3 cm in size and late ripening from mid-September. Bright red fruits with a yield of 20 to 40 kg per adult bush. The variety was created at the HBLFA in Schönbrunn in Vienna.
  • ˈKasanlakˈ: Pear-shaped, large fruits with a dark red colour and early ripening from mid-August. The variety comes from Bulgaria and reaches a height of growth of 2 to 3 m.
  • ˈPancherevoˈ: This narrow variety reaches a height of up to 5 m and grows as a cornelian cherry tree rather than a shrub. The large fruits weigh up to 15 g each.
  • ˈSchönbrunner Gourmet Dirndlˈ: A cultivar of HBLFA Schönbrunn with very sweet, pear-shaped, around 3 cm large fruits and a yield of 15 to 25 kg per bush.
  • ˈYellowˈ: Yellow Cornelian cherry with very early ripening starting in mid-August and about 2 cm large, milder and less sour tasting fruits. Very good pollinator for all yellow varieties.
Yellow and red varieties of the cornelian cherry
The yellow fruits of the yellow cornelian cherry appear more inconspicuous on the bush, but taste less sour than red-fruited varieties [Photo: maxstockphoto/ Shutterstock.com]

Tip: Looking confusingly similar, Japanese Cornelian cherry (Cornus officinalis) blooms about a week before Cornus mas and its young shoots are brown instead of green-red. However, this Far Eastern species also yields edible red fruits and offers pretty autumn colour.

Planting Cornelian cherry trees: location and procedure

The ideal location for Cornelian cherry is sunny to partial shade. It loves warmth and also reaches amazing sizes in sheltered locations. In our country, cornelian cherry is completely hardy and can cope with cooler areas. It also has few requirements as far as soil is concerned, growing in both rather sandy and loamy or humusy soils, as long as they are not too dry. The acidity of the soil may be weakly acidic to strongly alkaline, but a pH in the calcareous range of 7.4 and higher is preferred.
The native wild fruit is suitable for planting as a hedge, but standard cornelian cherry trees can also be planted as an ornamental small tree with a solitary position in the garden. Cornelian cherries are weak in competition when young, which should be taken into account when planting in association with other woody plants and shrubs. Here, the weak-growing Cornelian cherries should be cleared so that they have more free space and are not overgrown.

The best time for planting Cornelian cherry bushes is in autumn, between October and mid-November, because they have already shed their leaves and gone into hibernation. Until leaves emerge in the spring of the following year, the plant focuses only on root development and can grow well. Alternatively, planting in early March is also possible, but then the plants need regular watering in the summer, because there is not yet enough root mass. If you want to create a hedge, calculate around 2.5 plants per running metre, which corresponds to a planting distance of 40 cm. In a solitary position, Cornelian cherry occupies a space of about 4-5 m wide over the years, so it should be kept at least 2 m away from neighboring plants.

Cornelian cherry tree without leaves
The best time for planting Cornelian cherries is at the time of winter dormancy until the end of November or in March [Photo: Erik Agar/ Shutterstock.com]

First, dig a large planting hole and put the Cornelian cherry with the root ball inside. Mix the excavated soil with mature compost or a plant-based slow-release fertiliser such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food for a good supply of nutrients. Since the nutrients contained in the granules, such as potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus, are released only slowly over several months, they support the Cornelian cherry gently and sustainably during the growing phase. Fill in the planting hole around the woody plant again and lightly press the soil. Water once abundantly to flush substrate to the roots and create a soil seal. In the spring, you should also create a watering ring from soil in order to water abundantly and effectively.

Tip: The Cornelian cherry is only suitable as a potted plant with low growth height in its early years. In order for the roots to develop well, the plant needs a lot of space underground and should only be planted in an appropriately sized pot and transplanted annually. In addition, the pots must be protected from frost in winter because there is a risk that the root ball and soil will freeze through in the pot and cause great damage.

Planting Cornelian cherry at a glance:

  • Sunny to semi-shady location in a sheltered position
  • Preferred pH: 7.4 and higher
  • Best planting time: October to mid-November
  • Planting distance for hedge planting: about 40 cm
  • Planting distance for single planting: at least 2 m from neighbouring plants
  • Dig a large hole and put the cornelian cherry in it
  • Mix excavated soil with slow release fertiliser and spread around the plant
  • Press the soil and water abundantly
  • When planting in the spring, create a watering ring
  • Planting in pots is only possible for young cornelian cherries due to limited space
Cornelian cherry tree in a park
The cornelian cherry can grow more than four metres high and wide [Photo: Elena Rostunova/ Shutterstock.com]

The main care measures

As a native wild shrub, Cornelian cherry is naturally very low maintenance, but it too benefits from a few gardening touches. We have put together the most important measures when caring for Cornelian cherries.

Watering and fertilising

Cornelian cherries can survive dry periods well but they generally prefer soils that never dry out completely and retain some moisture even in midsummer. In the right place, only freshly planted bushes need watering since their root system has yet to form properly. Established plants provide themselves with water after two to three years at the latest. For Cornelian cherry, maintenance fertilisation once a year in spring at the time of leaf emergence is sufficient. A little mature compost or a slow-release fertiliser such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food can be used around plants in poor soils. Microorganisms in the soil decompose the granules over time and release nutrients for the plant to absorb.

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Pruning Cornelian cherry trees

Cornelian cherries do not require mandatory pruning if there is enough space. The flowers develop on one-year-old wood. Therefore, if pruning is severe you must expect a crop failure. However, the plants themselves tolerate pruning measures such as thinning well. Moreover, the large shrubs can also be limited in height and width by regular pruning, which is advantageous in hedges. They can even recover and form new shoots when radically pruned. Cornelian cherry itself is so tolerant of pruning that it can be grown as a topiary in spherical form, bonsai or espalier. However, frequent pruning results in less fruiting and significantly fewer fruits.

Cornelian cherry: diseases and pests

Cornelian cherry is rarely attacked by pests and individual leaves are mined by caterpillars. More often, brown spots discovered on the leaves of Cornelian cherry and other dogwoods are caused by fungi such as Septoria or bacteria such as Pseudomonas syringae, but these rarely threaten the plant. This can be remedied by pruning to improve aeration and removing fallen, diseased foliage. However, for properties near to fields and forests, inquisitive deer pose a much higher threat than pathogen infestation.

Cornelian cherry leaves with black spots
Leaf spots on cornelian cherry form from fungal or bacterial infections [Photo: Picmin/ Shutterstock.com]

Propagating Cornelian cherry trees

The wild form of Cornelian cherry can be propagated by its seeds. However, this has a very long and stable dormancy and they are also cold germinators, which usually only germinate after two winters. For convenience, cultivation here is done outdoors. Dig purchased or homegrown seeds into the bed about 3 to 5 inches deep in late autumn, mark the spot, and be patient until the first seedlings peek out of the ground next spring at the earliest.

A much faster method of propagation, even for varieties, is rooting cuttings. To do this, in early summer after the flowering period of the cornelian cherry, cut 10 to 15 cm long shoot cuttings from the still soft, lignifying new shoots of the same year and place them deep into moistened potting soil, half of which has been mixed with sand. Our Plantura Herb & Seedling Compost is ideal for this purpose, as it is low in nutrient salts that would deprive the fresh cutting of much needed water. At the same time, the high compost content and the resulting water retention provide a good environment for root development. During the next two to three weeks, the cuttings should be kept warm, in a bright and humid location, ideally 15 to 20 °C and with a translucent cover that maintains high humidity. Thus, roots are formed quickly and the cuttings can be transferred to more nutrient-rich soil after about four weeks or planted out in the autumn. Adult plants also often form root suckers that can be dug up and transplanted.

Is the Cornelian cherry poisonous?

Cornelian cherry is completely harmless to humans; it has long been maintained and harvested as an important fruit tree. After all, their fruits provided an important source of vitamins in the cold season. Cornelian cherries are also not poisonous or dangerous to pets such as cats or dogs. It can merely cause digestive problems if they swallow too many of the fruits along with the stone.

Cornelian cherry juice and ripe fruit
Cornelian cherries processed in the form of juice or syrup bring refreshment on hot days [Photo: Krzycho/ Shutterstock.com]

Cornelian cherry: harvest and use

Harvesting Cornelian cherries begins from the middle of August. The exact timing depends on the variety. Once the fruit is ready for harvest, the harvest period lasts about 1-2 weeks. Fully ripe fruit usually falls off the bush. Therefore, a fine-mesh net can be stretched out under the plants. Shaking it off vigorously ensures that more, almost fully ripe fruit fall down and more can be harvested at once. This saves the hassle of picking up and washing fruit lying on the ground. You should process soft Cornelian cherries immediately or alternatively freeze them. Fruit that is not quite ripe can be stored in a cool place for a maximum of ten days.

Only fully ripe fruits taste pleasantly sweet-sour and take on a very soft consistency. Fruits that are too unripe, on the other hand, are rather hard and still extremely sour. However, pink, semi-ripe Cornelian cherries ripen well, which can be particularly promoted by heat.

Ripe Cornelian cherries are suitable as a healthy snack since they have a very high vitamin C content of 70 to 125 mg per 100 g. For some, however, they taste too sour when fresh, but a wide variety of processing methods can be used to make cornelian cherry juices, syrup or the liqueur “Dernovka”, which is famous in Russia. In addition, the “Dirdl schnapps”, which is popular in Austria, is preserved in high-percentage spirits. Delicious Cornelian cherry jams and jellies are made by boiling down the fruit, which is then passed through a sieve to remove the stones. Similar to cranberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), Cornelian cherry works very well in the form of sauces or compote with game dishes. To preserve the wild fruit for several years, you should dry, glaze or freeze the cherries. Even the semi-ripe, green fruits can be enjoyed as “false olives” pitted and pickled in wine vinegar. In the past, people used the valuable ingredients and healing properties of cornelian cherries as a home remedy to relieve intestinal inflammation or fever.

Another wild fruit species gaining importance is the rock pear (Amelanchier). We show how the decorative small trees and shrubs will feel at home in your garden and whether the fruits are suitable for consumption.

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