The cornelian cherry is not a cherry. It is a dogwood (Cornus mas) with fruit that is so red and juicy when ripe that it gets called a cherry. According to marvelous old Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Fifth Edition) that I bought years ago at a yard sale in Bar Harbor, the “cornelian” part of the name is from Middle Low German cornelle. It can be traced back through Old French (corneille) to Latin cornicula, which may be some sort of diminutive of cornus, which is the Roman name for dogwoods. The British didn’t start refering to Cornus (sanguinea) as a dogwood until the 16th century, and it was first called the dogberry, the name given by Shakespeare to his inept constable in Much Ado About Nothing.
Cornelian cherries are flowering right now in the Finger Lakes region. They are one of the earliest shrubs/small trees to bloom, preceding even the Forsythia. Because both have small yellow flowers that appear in late winter to early spring, C. mas can be confused with Lindera (spicebush), especially the larger cultivars of that genus, but the dogwood bark is darker and rougher and their habit is different. Whereas Lindera sends out branches that spread and bifurcate laterally to arrange themselves in horizontal planes, C. mas sends out its branches in long arcs that ultimately hang downward at the tips.
In addition, Lindera branches are arranged alternately, while like nearly all Cornus species C. mas branches are opposite (like those of maples, ashes and viburnums).
Here in (USDA Hardiness) Zone 6 cornelian cherries don’t flower until very late March and into April. Further south (e.g. Zone 6) they will bloom as early as February. This quality makes them popular as ornamental plantings. It has been a cold spring here in the Finger Lakes and C. mas flowers didn’t appear until the first week of April. But because they are practically the only shrub in bloom, you see them everywhere. They are particularly striking after a rain, when the bright yellow flowers nearly glow against the backdrop of the rain-darkened branches.
The flowers are self-fertilized and fertile, maturing into red berries by late summer. They are red (contributing to the false association with cherries) and very sour while unripe and still hanging on the tree. The sourness is in part due to abundant vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in the fruit. By the time they fall off the tree they are sweet.
The natural range of C. mas extends from southern Europe through the Black Sea and Caucuses and Iran into southwestern Asia. The Russians and the Turks harvest the berries and make jam from them. The Russians, of course, also put them in vodka.
The fruit are now rarely used in Europe, where the plant is treated as an ornamental, valued for its early flowers, pretty fruit, and dramatic fall foliage. However, from the Middle Ages into the 17th century there were actually cornelian cherry orchards throughout southern Europe, but seems largely to have been regarded as an ornamental outside of its native range.
Except, of course, among the usual crop of eccentrics. William Woys Weaver, writing for Mother Jones, recalled British food writer Jane Grigson’s affection for cornelian cherries.
By the time we get home, she wrote in The Fruit Book (Penguin Books), the berries are ripening to red, and the race with the birds is on. If I win, I make them into a jelly to go with Christmas turkey, a jelly of the most beautiful pink color. Rarely are there enough to give me more than two small pots.
Like most plants that have served as ornamentals for centuries, C. mas has cultivars. According to the “Fruit Resources” people at Cornell (what’s the etymological relationship there?) University:
Cultivars include ‘Aureo-elegantissima’, which has creamy-white variegated leaves; ‘Flava’, which has yellow fruits that are larger and sweeter than the species; and ‘Golden Glory’, which has upright branching and bears large, abundant flowers and large red fruit.