Cornelian cherries are the sweet-tart fruit of a particular species of dogwood (Cornus mas) and they’ve been cultivated for thousands of years. They’re a part of the traditional cuisines in eastern Europe, Greece and Turkey, as well as a part of traditional Chinese medicine. These dogwood cherries are only just becoming popular and available in the US because of the rise in interest in backyard permaculture.
Cornelian cherries are mentioned in just about every permaculture text I’ve ever read, but they can be tricky to find locally and they’re most commonly ordered online by permaculture enthusiasts.
When I ran across three 5′ tall bushes at a plant auction, I made a point of bidding. Since no one seemed to know anything about them, very few people bid. I walked away with three plants, each about 5 feet tall, and each was covered in quarts of fruit.
Now the real problem, how do you grow cornelian cherry?
How to Grow Cornelian Cherry
The growth habit of cornelian cherry is somewhere between a bush and a small tree. They grow to somewhere between 15 and 25 feet tall, and large bushes can be 12 feet wide. Since they’re a slow-growing plant, it can take decades for them to reach full size and they have an expected productive lifespan of about 150 years. If you’re planting cornelian cherry, make sure you pick a location that can handle their eventual size, even if you don’t live to see it.
Cornelian cherries aren’t picky about soil type, and though they prefer fertile well-drained soil, they can be grown on just about anything, including dense clay. That’s good news for our heavy clay soil.
The plants are hardy to either zone 4 or 5 depending on the cultivar. The plants flower very early in the spring, even earlier than forsythia. Given that, they may need protection from late frosts in colder areas like ours, we’ll see…
Harvesting Cornelian Cherry
Unripe cornelian cherries are tart and astringent, but the fully ripe fruit tastes like a cross between tart cherries and cranberries. The trick is, the fruit are not fully ripe until they fall from the bush. Even when they’re fully bright red, they’re not ready yet. Truly ripe fruit is soft, and a deep red. The texture is a bit like a mushy plum that’s well past prime. At that stage, the fruit is soft and sweet-tart around a large oval shaped seed.
The fruit are oval shaped, with a large pit that’s firmly attached to the flesh. They’re tricky to pit, and generally, the fruit are boiled in a small bit of water until the fruit falls away from the pit.
Propagating Cornelian Cherry
Since plants can be a bit hard to find, I fully intended to propagate the three varieties I now have on the homestead. I quickly learned that propagation, by cuttings or seed, is a bit tricky.
Growing Cornelian Cherry from Seed
Cornelian cherry seeds need very specific conditions for germination, and I’m not sure I can actually recreate them here in Vermont. Sources vary a bit, but most say that cornelian cherry seeds require somewhere between 90 and 120 days of warm moist stratification (above 68 degrees f). After that, the seeds need an additional 90 to 120 days of cold stratification (below 39 degrees). That’s tough to accomplish, especially with fruit that ripens in early October.
Our growing season here in zone 4 is only 100 days long, and there are maybe 60 to 80 days that stay dependably above 68 degrees. It’s hard to keep it above 68 indoors, and often enough it’ll be below 50 in the morning when I wake up before the wood stove is loaded in the morning. Given these conditions, I’m not sure how to replicate them, indoors or out.
Propagating Cornelian Cherry from Cuttings
Given that seeds are tricky, the next logical choice is hardwood cuttings. Propagating grapes and many other plants is easiest by hardwood cuttings, since moisture levels are less critical than with softwood cuttings. Cornelian cherries apparently don’t do well with hardwood cuttings, and most sources suggest taking greenwood cuttings in July or August.
That said, I ran across one study that had a 60% success rate with some cultivars, though others just wouldn’t root at all from hardwood cuttings. Since I have three varieties, I’ll try taking dormant cuttings late this winter and see how it goes. If that fails, then greenwood cuttings midsummer seem like the only choice.
How to Use Cornelian Cherries
If the fruit are fully ripe, they’re sweet-tart with a very mild astringency. That’s too much for most American palates, but in the middle east, cornelian cherries are eaten as a snack with salt, and they’re also dried. The dried fruits are sold for use in traditional Chinese and Korean medicines for kidney issues.
Since the pits are so entrenched in the flesh, cornelian cherries are most commonly cooked into jams, jellies and syrups. With their rise in popularity in the US, they’re making their way into more westernized recipes from cheesecakes to fruit curds.
Though we lack ethnic markets here in rural Vermont, one of my readers was kind enough to share pictures of Cornelian Cherry juice that she purchased. These pictures come from Taryn of SharkGarden.org, and she describes the flavor:
“The flavor impression is acidic and starchy and medium sweet. I thought it tasted like cherries mixed with cooked rhubarb. Fairly refreshing, but the acidity became a bit much after half a glass.”
Cornelian Cherry Recipes
Since they’re still relatively uncommon, it’s tricky to find cornelian cherry recipes online, but I did track down a few:
- Cornelian Cherry Curd
- Cornelian Cherry Cheesecake
- Cornelian Cherry Fruit Leather
- Cornelian Cherry Juice
- Cornelian Cherry Liqueur (Krana)