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Cornelian Cherry or European Cornel (Cornus mas)

Published on Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Cornelian Cherry or European Cornel (Cornus mas)

Ecological niche similar to red-osier dogwood

Cornelian cherry (C. mas) is native to central and southern Europe and western Asia. References abound in ancient literature. Two thousand years ago, in Metamorphosis, Ovid wrote:


And Earth, untroubled,

Unharmed by hoe or plowshare, brought forth all

That men had need for, and those men were happy

Gathering berries from the mountainsides,

Cornel cherries, or blackcaps, and edible acorns.


Nearly forgotten today, cornelian cherry was among the most valued components of the Mediterranean food forest. It is encouraging that Köppen climate classification indicates much of the Spokane region having a similarly Mediterranean climate (Csa/Csb). 


C. mas is long-lived, slow-growing, low-maintenance, deciduous, forming a small tree or large shrub with a height of 15 to 25 feet and spread of 12 to 18 feet. It is very urban tolerant. Trees are upright in youth but spread to a broad arching form with age. Branch spreading is more pronounced when planted in shade. The habit is oval-rounded to rounded with a dense network of fine branches. It is rarely subject to insects or disease. Many parts of the plant are applied in folk medicine.


Early prolonged flowering nurtures bees, and butterflies, in particular the spring azure butterfly (Celastrina ladon). The fruit is favored by birds and other wildlife. Similar to red-osier dogwood, C. mas is adapted to woodlands proximate to springs and riparian corridors. It supports woodland fungal biology similar to red-osier dogwood. It is somewhat less resistant to deer browse damage than red-osier dogwood, which is resistant.


Adapted to USDA zones 4 to 8a, C. mas produces abundant long-lasting small yellow flowers on leafless branches in late winter, timed just before forsythia. C. mas can produce a bountiful crop of oblong glossy carnelian-hued drupes 2 cm long and 1.5 cm in diameter and containing a single seed. Seeds are spread by birds and animals. Varieties selected for fruit production can have drupes up to 4 cm long. There are summer and fall producing varieties.


The wood of C. mas is hard and is denser than water, with traditional uses for staves, spokes, wood-splitting wedges, bolts, pins, and fine inlay. Fuel value is high.


The plant is easy to transplant, grow and graft. It can be coppiced. It is wind tolerant. Plantings can be used as a non-thorny barrier or windbreak, on embankments, and to attract wildlife. Plantings tend to shade out other plants.


Cornelian cherry prefers moist, slightly acidic to alkaline, fertile, well-drained soils in full sun, but will tolerate a wide range of soil and shade. Transplant after last expected frost. Prevent droughty soil during during the first two to five years, the establishment phase of growth. Transplanted C. mas will usually bear fruit the second or third year after planting. They have the habit of producing only male flowers when young, but then will produce perfect (male/female) flowers when they're older.


The best plants for fruit are the clones developed specifically for this purpose and grown from cuttings. These will produce fruit the size and shape of a medium olive. Although self-fertile, plants that can cross-pollinate easily will produce abundantly. Fruit is used in preserves, tarts, juice, and syrups. Fruit is tart, low in pectin, and very high in ascorbic acid. Ripe fruits hang well on the branch, becoming with time more concentrated in flavor and sweetness. To harvest, periodically give branches a gentle shake, then collect fallen fruit from the ground.


Coppicing and pollarding involves heavy pruning in February or March on a two or three year interval. Coppicing and pollarding will greatly decrease flowering and fruit production. To enhance flowering and fruit production, selected branches are removed to allow light and air into the centre of the shrub or tree form. Branch thinning can occur into mid-summer.


Sources for this information:

A valuable excerpt from Cornelian Cherry From the Shores of Ancient Greece by Lee Reich, adapted from Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention: A Gardener’s Guide, 1991:

for over two decades Russians have been selecting clones with superior fruits. Since the recent breakup of the Soviet Union, some of the cornelian cherry varieties that were selected there for their fruits have become available here. These include ’Helen’, ’Pioneer’, ’Red Star’, and ’Elegant’, all bred by Svetlana Khmenko at the Botanic Garden in Kiev and available in this country through the nursery One Green World (telephone 503-651-3005).


If you are aware of other nurseries which have select fruiting varieties available, please add a comment.

Contact info for One Green World:


6469 SE 134th Ave, Portland, OR 97236-4540

(just off Foster Rd)


One Green World is a subsidiary of Northwoods Nursery, 
P.O. Box 149, Elk River, ID 83827-0149 Tel: 208-826-3408

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Author: Phil

Categories: Plant and Tree Profiles, Trees

Tags: Trees, plants



Other posts by Phil

3 comments on article "Cornelian Cherry or European Cornel (Cornus mas)"



6/22/2013 10:45 PM

If someone wants something specific from OGW, but can't warm up to those prices, let me or Sean and Shannon know. At some point when one of us next goes to Portland we are going to swing by OGW, see what they are clearing out. 1 or 2 fruitful C. Mas varieties for me.


Torie Foote

6/23/2013 11:15 AM

We should definitely put this on the list for the Spokane Food Forest!



6/24/2013 3:41 PM

Seems like enough at OGW to justify a road trip all by itself!

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