Above, from left to right: A mature cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) established against the east wall of Bonnefont garden; the foliage of Cornus mas is typical of the dogwood family to which it belongs; the tart red fruits, known as cornels, don’t ripen fully until after they fall from the tree in late July and early August. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt.
A native of dry, deciduous forests in central and southern Europe and western Asia, the cornelian cherry is a relative of our own flowering dogwood, Cornus florida. The fruit of the cornelian cherry is classified botanically as a drupe, as is the fruit of the true cherry, Prunus cerasus, but the two plants are in no way related. Although the fruits are unfamiliar to Americans, Cornus mas is very widely grown in this country as a small ornamental tree or as a multi-stemmed shrub, prized for the host of little yellow blossoms that veil the naked stems and branches in early March. Hardy to Zone 4, cornelian cherry is one of the first woody plants to flower in the northeastern United States. A number of handsome specimens may be found outside the garden walls on the grounds of The Cloisters, and throughout Fort Tryon Park. Although the species is grown in Bonnefont garden, improved varieties, bred to produce larger fruits, white or yellow fruit, or variegated leaves, are available.
The charred pits of cornelian cherries, mingled with the remains of other food plants, have been excavated from a neolithic site in northern Greece. According to Homer, cornels were used as pig fodder: the companions of Circe turned into swine fed on acorns and cornels. (The Odyssey, 10.42). Unlike acorns, cornels don’t seem to have been considered a famine food; in the first century A.D., Dioscorides mentions that they were pickled and eaten like olives (De materia Medica, I.72) but the fruits were not as prized in ancient gastronomy as medlars and quince were (see also “Rotten-ripe: The Medlar Goes Soft,” Friday, November 14, 2008, and “The Golden Quince,” Monday, October 27, 2008.)
Grown as an orchard tree throughout the Middle Ages, cornelian cherries were still widely cultivated for their fruits in the seventeenth century.
In 1614, the Italian Protestant Giacomo Castelvetro, who had fled to England to escape the Roman Inquisition, wrote an account of the roots, fruits, and vegetables enjoyed in his native country in an effort to persuade his English patrons and friends to eat more fresh vegetables. Castelvetro considers cornelian cherries to be good eating in autumn, but he does not deem it to be a serious fruit, concluding that it is more for pregnant women and little children than for grown men. In the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the tree came to be valued more in the landscape than in the orchard, but horticulturist Lee Reich, author of Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention: A Gardener’s Guide, champions cornelian cherry both as an ornamental tree and as a delicious foodstuff. (See Reich’s article on cornelian cherry drawn from this work, “Cornelian Cherry From the Shores of Ancient Greece (PDF).”)
Although not much eaten in the United States, cornelian cherries are still appreciated in Europe and in the Middle East. The acid fruits are sweetened and made into pies, conserves, and sherbets. The food historian Alan Davidson observes that cornels are most appreciated in Turkey, where they are widely available in markets in late summer. In Turkish legend, the kizilchik tree is known as Seytan alditan agaci, or “the tree that deceived Satan.” When the Devil saw that the cornelian cherry tree was the first tree to bloom in early spring, he assumed it would be the first to bear, and camped beneath it to secure the fruit for himself. After a long vigil, he realized that the fruit ripened not first but last, in late summer. In our climate, the fruit does not ripen fully before it falls to the ground, where it turns from a bright red to a dark ruby red. (The epithet “cornelian” is taken from the semiprecious gemstone, sometimes spelled carnelian, since the fruits are similar in color. )
Cornels were also held to have medicinal virtues in antiquity and the Middle Ages: Dioscorides recommends the ripe fruits as a cure for fluxes of the belly and dysentery. While the fifteenth-century Hortus Sanitatis classes cornelian cherry as cold and dry in nature, Hildegarde of Bingen considered it to have a gentle, moist heat. She recommends the fruit as a beneficial food, useful to strengthen and purge both sick and healthy stomachs. (Physica, XL).
The exceptionally hard wood of the tree was put to many uses, and acquired much lore, but that’s another story.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Baumann, Hellmut. The Greek Plant World in Myth, Art, and Literature. Translated and augmented by William T. Stearn and Eldwyth Ruth Stearn. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1993.
Coats, Alice M. Garden Shrubs and Their Histories. 1964. Reprint: New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, with notes by Dr. John L. Creech.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Reich, Lee. Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention: A Gardener’s Guide. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1991.
Throop, Priscilla, transl. Hildegard von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998.
Tags: acorn, Alan Davidson, cherry, Circe, cornel, cornelian, Cornus florida, cornus mas, Dioscorides, drupe, Giacomo Castelvetro, Hildegard von Bingen, Homer, Hortus Sanitatis, kizilchik, Lee Reich, medlar, Prunus cerasus, quince