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Cornelian Cherry

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Cornelian CherryFrom the Shores of Ancient GreeceLee ReichIn late March at theArnold Arboretum thesigns of spring are fewand subtle. Cornus masis one of the first woodyplants to bring colorback to the landscape.A first-class ornamental,it offers a graceful habit,attractively mottled bark,soft yellow flowers,and-not least-fruits.One summer day as I happenedupon and ate corneliancherries from a tree in New /;York City’s Central Park, ’I had to assure a concernedpasserby that I was not experi-menting with a possibly poi-sonous new food. Instead, I waspartaking of a fruit that hasbeen enjoyed by humankind forthe past seven thousand years.At a site in northern Greece,early Neolithic peoples leftremains of meals that includedcornelian cherry along witheinkorn wheat, barley, lentils,and peas.Cornelian cherry (Cornusmas) was well known to theancient Greeks and Romans,and references to the plant ’abound in their literature. ~Speaking of the Golden Age inCornus mas in frmt, drawn by V. Arlein.3Metamorphosls, Ovid wrote:And Earth, untroubled,Unharmed by hoe or plowshare, brought forth allThat men had need for, and those men were happyGathering berries from the mountam sides,Cornel cherries, or blackcaps, and edible acorns.The plant was grown in monastery gardensof continental Europe through the MiddleAges and was introduced to Britain about thesixteenth century. The great herbalist Gerardwrote in 1597 that "there be sundry trees of thecornel m the gardens of such as love rare anddainty plants, whereof I have a tree or two m mygarden." By the eighteenth century, the plantwas common in English gardens, where it wasgrown for its fruits, sometimes called cornelplums.The fruit was familar enough to be found inEuropean markets even up to the end of thenineteenth century. Cornelian cherries were es-pecially popular in France and in Germany, andthe fruit was reputedly a favorite with children.Cornelian cherry is native to regions of east-ern Europe and western Asia, and in certainparts of these regions it is appreciated for itsfruit even today. Baskets of klzilcik, as theTurks call the fruit, are found in markets inIstanbul. Cornelian cherry is a backyard tree mMoldavia, Caucasia, Crimea, and the Ukrame.Although it is not native to the Ukraine, theplant reached that region about nine centuriesago and became established in monastery gar-dens. A former monastery garden (now a botani-cal garden) near Kiev has trees 150 to 200 yearsold that still bear regular crops of fruit. In spiteof the long history of use in some regions of theworld, and the recognition of superior fruitingtypes, just about all cornelian cherry plants thatare cultivated are from seedlings rather thanfrom more reliable clones.Over most of Europe and North America to-day, cornelian cherry is admired solely (for noapparent reason) as an ornamental plant. Evenso, the bright fruits do not go unnoticed as theyfestoon the tree in summer. Fruits generally arecherry-like in size and appearance: oval, fire-engine red, with a single, elongated stone. Eventhe flavor is akin to that of a cherry, a tartcherry, somewhat austere when the fruit firstcolors, but developing sweetness and aromawith full ripeness.Botanically, cornelian cherry is a species ofdogwood, unrelated to grocers’ cherries. Theword "cornehan" refers to the similarity incolor of the fruit to cornelian (or carnelian)quartz, which has a waxy lustre and a deep red,reddish-white, or flesh red color. /Carnis is Latinfor flesh.) /Plant DescriptionCornelian cherry grows to a maximum height ofabout twenty-five feet, becoming a large shrubor an oval-headed tree, usually branching nearthe ground. In full sun the branches are largelyupright, whereas in shade the branches spreadwide, as if to embrace the limited light avail-able. Though the cornelian cherry never growslarge, it is a long-lived plant that produces bush-els of fruit on into old age. In Arboretum andFruticetum, John Claudius Loudon wrote thatduring travels in Germany in 1828, his party:stopped at the gardens of the ancient Chateau ofMaskirch; and m a small enclosure close to thechateau, we found a labyrinth, the hedge ofwhich consisted entirely of Cornus mas, withstandard trees of the same species at regular dis-tances, which were at that time bearing ripefruit, which we tasted, and found of very goodflavour. Later m the same year, we were shown,in the grounds of the Castle of Heidelberg, thefamous cornelian cherry trees which wereplanted there m 1650.Cornelian cherry has the pattern of leaf at-tachment and leaf venation characteristic ofother members of the dogwood genus. Leavesoppose each other at each node, in contrast tomost other trees, on which leaves alternatealong the stem. The major veins of a dogwoodleaf trace out almost to the leaf margin, thenjoin together and parallel the margin to the leaf’sapex. The leaves are satiny green in summer,often turning mahogany red in the fall. (Fall leafcolor is not wholly reliable, however, for withCornus mas ‘Flava’ can be seen m Its mature form at the Arnold Arboretum near Meadow Road. Thismultistemmed speclmen stands twenty feet high mth a spread of equal dimensions.some clones and in some climates-probablywarmer parts of the plant’s range-leaves even-tually drop to the ground while still green.) (In winter, the plant is notable from a distancefor its rounded form. Step a bit closer to appre-ciate the bark, flaking off in muted shades of tanand gray. And get right up to the plant to see thedistinctive flower buds, perched atop shortstalks at the nodes of branches that grew theprevious season, and on spurs of older wood.Flowers appear on leafless branches early inthe season, blooming with the "first breath ofwest wind" (in Italy, at least, according to Pliny,writing in the first century A.D.) or just beforeforsythia. Individual flowers are tiny, but areborn in such profusion that the bare branches5 5appear swathed in a yellow veil.The effect is all the more strik-ing against a backdrop of a darkwall or evergreen plant. Despitethe early bloom, fruit productionrarely suffers since the bloomshave an extended floweringperiod and an inherent tolerancefor some frost. The flowers maynot be completely self-fertilizing,because cross-pollination some-times increases fruit production.The names of the few cultivarsof cornelian cherry that havebeen available from nurseriesreflect the plant’s use as anornamental rather than as acomestible. ’Golden Glory’ is anupright,


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