by Debbie Lienhart
At a recent nursery team meeting we sampled jams from several uncommon plants we grow. One of our favorites was Cornelian cherry. The jam was smooth and red, with a slightly tart fruity taste similar to strawberries. The juice of Cornelian cherry, recently discovered by Chuck at a European market in West Asheville, the Euro Market, is also quite excellent. Chuck told us how he saw Cornelian cherry trees when he was visiting the Ukraine last year. They were a dominant small tree in Ukrainian forest gardens, along with their companion Carpathian walnuts, elderberries, and hazelnuts. Cornelian cherry is one of the favorite fruits in Eastern Europe, and it grows great in our area too!
Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas, is actually a European dogwood species with abundant, small bright yellow flowers that are the harbingers of spring, blooming just before the forsythias. These cheery blooms evolve into edible red berries in mid to late summer. The single or multi-stemmed plants grow to 12 feet tall and wide, and are rarely bothered by insects or diseases – once established, they are one of the most carefree plants we grow. They appreciate some extra limestone added to the planting hole and to the surrounding soil in acidic soils. And don’t forget to also add extra phosphate into the hole at planting time.
While virtually unknown except as ornamental small trees in America, they have a long history of use in Europe. Their long history of use by humans definitely places them in the “old friends” category of useful plants. Cornelian cherries can be traced back to the early Neolithic peoples in Greece. Cornelian cherry is native to regions of Eastern Europe and Western Asia and can still be found in some of their modern markets. The fruits are referenced commonly in Greek and Roman literature.
While recognized by adventurous gardeners and experienced horticulturists for its flavorful fruit and landscape beauty, Cornelian cherry is less well known for its plethora of medicinal uses down through the ages. They have twice the Vitamin C of oranges, making them a great addition to immune-boosting remedies. European folk medicine has used the fruit, flowers and leaves as a remedy for gout, anemia, skin diseases, painful joints, and disrupted metabolism or other gastrointestinal concerns such as diarrhea. It has also been noted as a remedy for tuberculosis. The bark and under-ripe fruits are astringent, which means they cause a local contraction of the skin, blood vessels, and other tissues, which is helpful in reducing excretions and discharge. Contemporary Russian folk medicine claims that the fruit contains components that can cleanse radioactivity from the body. This attribute of cornelian cherry is becoming especially important as we become exposed to rising levels of radioactivity in modern life.
Cornelian cherry is easy to grow, beautiful, space conserving, productive, nutritious, flavorful, and medicinal. What more could you ask of a plant? We believe that this “Old Friend” should rank far higher in the useful plant pantheon and be more commonly planted in the landscapes of America, enriching our culture and our diets for years to come.
More information about Cornelian cherries here.