The Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas), also called Herlitze or Dirlitze in the vernacular, is neither related to the sweet cherry, nor to the sour cherry, but a dogwood species. Accordingly, it belongs to the family of the Hartriegelgewächse (Cornaceae) like all other types of this type. The shrub was originally native to the Caucasus and migrated to Central Europe after the ice ages. In the United States, the Cornelian Cherry was replaced centuries ago by many natural sites.
Today, small-scale natural occurrences of Cornus mas can only be found in the southern Harz Mountains, in the Eifel and Lower Rhine, in the Saar-Moselle region as well as on the Main, Danube and Saale rivers. The reason for the decline in the cornelian cherry population was the coveted wood, in addition to the emerging viticulture: it is one of the hardest wood species in Europe along with yew wood and is so heavy that it sinks into the water. To this fact the cornelian cherry owes also the botanical species name “mas”, which means translated as male.
The cornelian cherry can grow to a height of six to eight metres and usually grows with several stems, rarely with one stem like a tree. Over time, the shrub can reach the same width. In its unleafed state, the cornelian cherry is easily recognisable by its light, slightly corky and fibrous bark and its strikingly thin, green twigs with pointed, opposite buds. Every year Cornus mas grows about 30 centimetres in height and 25 centimetres in width, making it one of the slow-growing woody plants.
The leaves of the cornel cherry are deciduous and oval to elliptic in shape. The leaf edge is often wavy. The foliage is shiny green above, the lower side usually somewhat lighter. In autumn the foliage often turns yellowish to red-orange.
The cornelian cherry can be identified without any doubt even by the layman from the end of February, beginning of March, because then it opens its small yellow flowers – one of the first spring greetings from the realm of trees and bushes, which is eagerly awaited by insects. The hermaphroditic flowers of Cornus mas stand in small, spherical umbels and appear long before foliage growth.
Depending on the climate and location, the edible cornelian cherries are ready for harvest between the end of August and the beginning of October. Let the approximately two centimetres long, oval, glossy red stone fruits ripen well, because, similar to grapes, they only reach their highest sugar content when fully ripe. In the case of wild game, however, this is only around 15 percent, so that fruit acid still dominates the taste. As soon as the fruits are deep red and slightly glassy and the fruit juice emerges at light pressure, the optimum ripening stage is reached.
Location and soil
The location for the cornelian cherry should be sunny to semi-shady. In the great outdoors, the cornelian cherry is a site specialist. It has its ecological niche on rather dry, calcareous slopes, because larger trees, which could dispute its light, no longer grow on such soils. In the garden, the cornelian cherry also tolerates slightly acidic, slightly more humid soils, but does not tolerate waterlogging. The soil should also be permeable and rich in nutrients.
Planting and care
The cornelian cherry is very robust in all respects. You can easily buy and plant shrubs up to 1.50 metres in size in autumn or spring without root balls. The compact, very densely branched root system and the above-ground shoots should be shortened by about a third before planting. You will need a little patience afterwards, as the shrub grows very slowly in the first two to three years after planting. If you want to use the fruits in the kitchen, you should plant two cornelian cherries to improve the pollination of the flowers. Also make sure that both plants are as warm and sunny as possible, because the fruit will then ripen better.
The cornelian cherry does not require any special care. It gets along with a minimum of nutrients, therefore a fertilization with compost in spring is completely sufficient. Cornus mas is also tough in other respects: Heat and dryness make as little difference to her as strong wind. A strong pruning is also possible without problems, so that you can also use the cornel cherry for cut hedges. If you want to integrate it into a mixed, free-growing hedge, you need to keep competitive shrubs such as Norway maple or birch away from it. Reason: Their roots are rather weak in competition, so that sooner or later the cornelian cherry is suppressed by such neighbours.
Although the cornelian cherry is well tolerated for pruning, it blooms and produces plenty of fruit even without pruning and only ages in old age. For this reason, a corrective pruning is only necessary for young cornelian cherries when they are planted or in the spring after flowering so that the crown builds up evenly. Older specimens of Cornus mas can be touched at any time to create a bed or a seat underneath.
Use in the garden
. In addition to the early flowering mentioned above, it adorns itself in autumn like all dogwood species with a beautiful, bright red leaf colour. For this reason, it does not necessarily have to be banished to windbreaks and hedges at the end of the plot, but can also be used as a stand-alone eye-catcher in the garden. Since it reaches a stately size in the age, it is suitable with its round to breitovalen somewhat sparse crown even as house tree for smaller properties.
Harvesting and recycling
The easiest way to harvest cornel cherries is to place a fine-meshed net under the shrub and shake the fruit down. This must be repeated every three days, as the fruits do not all ripen at the same time, but over a period of about four to five weeks. The sour wild fruit is suitable for the most different kinds of preparation. Cornelian cherries can be frozen, dried, juiced, boiled down or processed into wine and liqueur. In cooked form they refine strong game dishes instead of cranberries. The pitting of the fruit is not so easy. Use an olive stoner or boil the cherries up and pass them through a sieve. Cornel cherries also contain a lot of vitamin C and pectin, which is also found in apples.
For use as wild fruit, there are large-fruited cornel cherry varieties such as ‘Jolico’ with fruits weighing up to 6.5 grams, less than ten percent stone content and a higher sugar content.
The wild form of the cornelian cherry is usually increased by sowing. It is best to sow the stones immediately in an open field bed with humus-rich, loose and evenly moist garden soil after you have harvested the fruit and removed the flesh. The seeds then usually germinate next spring. It fruit varieties are usually grafted in early summer by oculation onto ingrown seedling rootstocks. However, winter hand finishing of Cornus mas varieties on bare-root seedlings by copulation is also possible.
Diseases and pests
They are very resilient and are hardly affected by pests and diseases. Only aphids and powdery mildew occur occasionally.