by Chris Johnson
My interest in looking at plants when I traveled started in my early teens. I remember visiting my grandparents at their winter home in Coronado California. I was walking past this stately conifer in front of the library when I realized it was a Norfolk Island Pine. It was easily 80 feet tall. My only previous experience with these trees were the tabletops that we purchased around the holidays. I had no idea they got this big! These experiences would and still continue.
This past March my wife and I took our first trip without kids to Croatia and Slovenia. We were traveling back north after we had toured the coastline from Opatija to Dubrovnik. We were heading inland towards the capital of Zagreb across a plateau when I started to notice shrubs with yellow flowers. True signs of spring. Upon closer inspection I realized what I was looking at was Cornus mas or Cornelian Cherry. It was everywhere. This is one of my favorite plants because it has year round interest. It has a beautiful yellow cluster of flowers in early spring around the same time as Forsythia. It also produces a prolific amount of edible red berries and has an attractive exfoliating bark and graceful form for winter interest. In the landscape it matures at 20 to 25 feet high and 15 to 20 feet wide.
Cornus mas is native to the Black Sea region and is zone 4-7 hardy. It prefers a rich well-drained soil, sun to part shade and is adaptable to different pH types. Michael Dirr rates this as the most durable of the larger Dogwoods, transplants easily and is not used enough in the modern landscape. The plant is virtually pest and disease free and can be used in shrub borders, hedges and foundation plantings.
When speaking with customers prior to this trip about the fruit of Cornus mas I said it was good for attracting birds in the fall. I knew the fruit was “edible” for humans but it was tart and not great right off the shrub. What I learned in Croatia is that this plant is cultivated for its fruit and is used in cuisines from Russia to Iran. The fruit is mentioned in early Greek, Armenian, Roman, and Persian literature as an edible fruit. Later in the first century, the Greek physician Dioscorides the healing effects of the fruit (probably due to its high vitamin C content) and could be pickled similar to olives.
Today the Russians use the fruit to make wine, add to vodka, and to make preserves and the British use them for jellies. The dried prune-like fruit is a prized ingredient in Persian and Central Asian cuisine. Another name for Cornus mas is Sorbet Tree as the fruit is used in traditional Persian sorbet. The Russians and Ukrainians are introducing new species with an emphasis on fruit production. Some of these varieties are ‘Elegant’ with heavy crops of red fruit, ‘Pioneer’ with sweet red pear-shaped fruit and ‘Yellow’ with sweet lemon yellow olive-shaped fruit.
With my newfound knowledge I now have another reason to sell this plant to customers, bringing food into their landscape.
Manual of Woody Landscape Plants; Michael Dirr
Mother Earth News; William Woys Weaver, December 2005/ January 2006