Plant 221

Cornus mas L. (Cornaceae)


Cornelian cherry

The Cornelian cherry is a small, deciduous tree native to central and southern Europe and southwestern Asia. It can grow to twelve metres in height. The tree produces quantities of small, yellow flowers in late winter, before the emergence of the leaves. The edible fruit, a drupe, is usually red and oblong. It is highly astringent until completely ripe when it develops a sweet, plum-like taste. The Cornelian cherry is not closely related to the sweet cherry rather is in the same genus as the dogwoods. Young plants may only produce male flowers for the first few years of flowering, which may explain another common name male cornel.

The tree is grown in Britain as a garden ornamental, valued for its very early flowers. Some ornamental cultivars exist with variegated leaves. It was introduced into cultivation in monastic gardens during the Middle Ages. In 1597, herbalist John Gerard describes it: 'there be sundry trees of the cornel in gardens of such as love rare and dainty plants, whereof I have a tree or two in my garden'.

Cornus mas has a long history of use as a food. Neolithic food remains from northern Greece include the plant's seeds. In eastern Europe and western Asia, the fruit is very popularly eaten fresh or processed into jams, pickles, syrups and alcoholic beverages. Consuming the fruit is often associated with health benefits. A Serbian saying, Zdrav kao dren, translates as 'healthy as a cornel'. Many named varieties have been selected in eastern Europe for fruit size and quality, reflecting high levels of variation in wild populations. Cultivars may have particularly large fruit which are often pear-shaped and range in colour from white to dark red. The fruit is very rich in vitamin C. Trees bear fruit in great quantities and can live for two hundred years.

The Cornelian cherry is prominent in classical literature. It is mentioned in Ovid's Metamorphosis as one of the foods available to humans before agriculture. When the followers of Odysseus are transformed into pigs by the witch Circe in the Odyssey, they are fed with the fruits. Pausinias states that the Trojan horse was made from the wood of Cornelian cherry, while it provided wood for spears mentioned in the Aeneid and fibre for the Gordian knot. The bark of the tree also yields a red dye that has been used to give fezzes their distinctive red colour.

Further reading

Cappiello P and Shadow D 2005. Dogwoods: The genus Cornus. Timber Press.

Levi P. 1979. Pausinias: guide to Greece. Penguin Books.

Reich L 2004. Uncommon fruits for every garden. Timber Press.

James Penny