By 2016 POP Intern, Lucia Kearney
Cornelian Cherries are some of the first trees to bloom, their bright yellow flowers bursting forth at the end of winter right when everyone could use some color in their lives. A member of the dogwood family, Cornelian Cherries are small trees, usually growing to around 16 feet in height, though they can reach up to 25 feet depending on the cultivar. Trunks can reach around eight inches in diameter.
They are native to central and southern Europe, Asia Minor, Armenia, and the Caucuses, and grow best in dry, deciduous forests. The Greeks and Romans prized Cornelian Cherries for their hard wood, which they used to craft spears, javelins, and bows. In the Middle Ages, Cornelian Cherries made their way into European monasteries, and were introduced to Britain in the 16th century, where they were widely grown as an ornamental by the 18th century.
Cornelian Cherries can be grown in soil of moderate to good fertility, including heavy clay. They prefer moist soil and sunshine, and will tolerate shade and exposure to wind. They are also resistant to drought and suffer from very few pests and diseases. While Cornelian Cherries can be grown from seed, grafted Cornelian Cherries reach maturity more quickly; grown from seed, they can taken 3-5 years to flower, and 6-10 years to bear fruit, while grafted varieties will usually start fruiting within 1-2 years of transplanting. These trees can be very long-lived; there is a botanical garden in Kiev that includes Cornelian Cherries that are 150-200 years old and still bear fruit!
To start Cornelian Cherries from seed, sow seeds from fresh fruits in fall, or stratify dried seed for 23 weeks, cold, or 16 weeks warm and then 4-16 weeks cold. Germination can take as long as 12-15 months, though nicking the seed coat prior to stratification can help to speed up the process. Seedlings raise two large irregular oval seed leaves when they sprout, followed by normal foliage with leaves in pairs.
Cornelian Cherries can be grafted using any method, as long as scions are grafted low on the rootstock. Plants branch close to the ground, so it is important to make sure that all branches are coming from the scion rather than the rootstock.
Trees should be planted about 20 feet apart. If weather conditions are poor and bees are not out and about while they are flowering, it may be necessary to hand-pollinate in order to get a good crop. It’s also been found that planting several cultivars of Cornelian Cherries can improve the fruit yield. Mature trees yield around 24 pounds of fruit, though different cultivars can produce as much as 48 pounds per tree. Fruits ripen over a long period of time, around August and September. The easiest way to harvest them is to wait until fruit has changed color (ripe fruits are usually bright red, though different cultivars can produce fruits in colors ranging from cream to dark reddish-purple), and then to shake the branches. The ripe fruit will fall and can then be collected from the ground. Fruit will continue to sweeten and intensify in flavor as it ripens, so it’s worth keeping it on the tree until fully ripe, or letting it sit on the counter for 1-2 days at room temperature.
Now on to the tasty stuff! With a long history of cultivation, there are many ways to eat and prepare Cornelian cherries. Acidic and sweet, the cherries can be eaten raw or dried, and are also commonly used in preserves and to make wine and liqueur.
In Turkey, the fruits are used to flavor sherbet, as well as to make jams and marmalades. In Ukraine, they are juiced and sold commercially as soft drinks, and are also fermented into wine and distilled into liqueur. People in the Caucuses make fruit leather from Cornelian cherries, as well as canning them or drying and grinding them into a powder that can be used in sauces or sprinkled onto grilled meat. In Russia, the fruit is used in jams, jellies, fruit candies, purees, soft drinks, and sauces. Cornelian cherry tarts were popular in 19th Century Britain, as well as a syrup called rob de cornis. For some recipes, check out this Persian cooking blog, Fig & Quince!
(Cornelian cherries can be used to make Sharbat – a Persian syrup that is diluted with cold water and served as a refreshing drink.)
The flowers of this tree are also edible, and in Norway are used to flavor spirits. Oil can be extracted from the seeds, which have an oil content of up to 34%. The oil is edible and can also be used for lamp fuel. Seeds can also be dried, ground, and used as a coffee substitute.
As mentioned earlier, Cornelian Cherry wood is very dense (so dense, in fact, that it will not float in water), and can therefore be used to make smaller, domestic implements such as handles, utensils, skewers, etc. (Given the small size of the tree, it is difficult to make larger implements). It has also been used to make jewelry, musical instruments, gears, and wheel-spokes. In Ancient Greece, the wood was so closely associated with weaponry that its Greek name was often used as a synonym for ‘spear’ in poetry during the fourth and third centuries BC. The leaves of the tree are high in tannins, and can be used for tanning, and a yellow dye can be made from the bark.
Uses within the Orchard
Since they bloom quite early in the season, Cornelian Cherries are a great source of nectar and pollen for bees that are just starting to wake up. They can also be used as screens and windbreaks, or trimmed and used as hedges. These trees suffer from very few pests and diseases, but you may find yourself competing with birds and squirrels for the fruit!
Nutritional and Medicinal Uses
After cooking, the Vitamin C content of the fruit is as high as that of raw lemons – about 30-50mg/100g. The fruit also contains substantial amounts of calcium, magnesium, provitamin A, and rutin.
In the Caucuses and Central Asia, Cornelian Cherry has been used as a part of traditional medicine systems for over 1,000 years. Products made from the leaves, flowers, and fruit are used to treat sore throats, digestion problems, measles, chickenpox, anemia, and rickets. Juice made from the fruit has been used to help with diabetes. Leaves, dried and powdered fruits, and dried ground drupes (fruit plus seed) are used to alleviate diarrhea and hemorrhoids. Products made from the bark and from evaporated juice can be used to treat skin wounds and boils. Researchers from the former USSR found that the fruit flesh and seed oil can help damaged skin to recover, and successfully used them to cure difficult-to-heal wounds, stomach ulcers, and colitis. Recent Russian research has found that the fruit contains substances that can leach radioactivity from the body. The fruit, bark, and leaves have also been found to demonstrate antimicrobial activity against Staphylococcus and E. Coli bacteria
In conclusion, Cornelian Cherries are pretty awesome. With their versatility, deliciousness, and hardiness, they are definitely a great tree to have around.
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Trees for Gardens, Orchards and Permaculture – Martin Crawford
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