Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Plant Profile: Cornelian Cherry, Cornus Mas

If you like to pucker, then you'll want to get acquainted with the sweet-tart flavor Cornelian Cherries. 

The Cornelian Cherry Dogwood, Cornus Mas, is a native of west asia and carries an ancient culinary pedigree, being pickled as "olives," used as gourmet floral-scented preserves, and even as the orginial sweet-tart "sorbet" in Persia. "Floral, complex, intriguing, distinctive, rich, unequaled" are often found in the long strings of adjectives writers use in describing the flavor of the cooked fruit, when sweetened or added to alcohol. 

In the Great Lakes landscape, (it's hardy throughout the Great Lakes Region) it grows to a large, showy shrub (12' x 12'.) The spring flowers are small, yellow and attractive and the summer foliage is a nearly waxy beautiful green. 

There are already some excellent resources for Cornus Mas online, including profiles at Plants For a Future and Mother Earth News, but after recently finding this beauty in "the wild," I'd like to add my own recommendation that this would be an excellent addition to the Permaculture landscape or forest garden. 

This was a shrub we passed over when planning our landscape at Lillie House, based on its reputaion for hogging space and the rather lack-luster recommendations we had read elsewhere. But one taste of the fruit grown in S.W. Michigan was enough to instantly correct that mistake. 

What's more impressive is that in S.W. Michigan it's tough to get real "cherries" without spraying and fighting off birds, but the Cornelian fruit was large, overwhelmingly "clean," (no bugs or diseases) very abundant, and apparently productive over a fairly long harvest period, making it ideal for a home landscape. This is a true example of a "no spray," no maintenance fruit bush which will produce a high-quality fruit. With its edible seed, spring flowers, dense habit and fruit, it's also recommended as a wildlife planting, making it a multi-funtional plant in the Permaculture garden. 

The fruit we found, grown on serveral bushes, was quite variable, but tasted similar to the cherries it's named after. By most accounts the fruit is too sour to eat fresh, but I enjoy the "sour patch kids" tartness and the ripest berries are actually quite sweet, similar to a plum. I ate dozens out of hand while picking. 

The drawbacks are primarily related to picking, packaging and processing. While ideal for the home grower who wants daily fruit in their freetime, for commercial picking, the long ripening period would require many days in the field hand-picking. The wood is reportedly very brittle and easily damaged during picking. Ripe fruit seems to easily fall from the bush. Underripe fruit is astrigent and very sour. Once picked, the fruit does not keep and must be used immediately, so commercial shipping isn't an option. The fruit has a large pit and from most accounts is usually "clingstone" making it difficult to remove without destroying the fruit. 

So, overall, the bush takes up a fair bit of room, and processing takes some time and energy, but since the Cornelian Cherry will fruit with no spraying, fertlizing or other maintenance, it seems that a little extra work on the processing side would be well worthwhile. At least on the home scale. Difficult processing would seem a barrier to its value in commercial production, so I wouldn't recommend it for that purpose without further study. 

In the Great Lakes Landscape, Cornus Mas could be a versitle, multi-purposed plant. At this site in Kalamazoo, it was found growing both in a thicket-like multi-species hedgerow and as a specimen in a sunny location, reflecting two of its common uses. In both locations the bushes were fruitful and the fruit tasty. The shadier fruit was probably sweeter, while the sunnier fruit larger. It reportedly grows in quite deep shade as an understory bush, but is probably less productive in that situation. It is also reported to coppice well, one of the reasons it became a common hedgerow plant in the UK. 

I would like to observe the species at other sites in the Great Lakes region, but the growing situations observed at this park would verify its reputation for a strong likelihood of success in a hedgerow, in a forest edge, as the canopy of a small food forest, or in the understory of larger trees with a fairly open-canopy. 

Recommended Resources:

Plants for a Future:  
Mother Earth News: 

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