Cornelian cherry at harvest time. Note the sting mark on the largest fruit.
‘Elegant’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Yellow’, ‘Bodacious’, ‘Jolico’
Description and site preference
Type and size – shrub-like small tree, 15-25 feet high if not pruned
Hardiness zone – 4-8
Exposure – half-day to full sun
Soil – variety of soils; pH 5.5-7.5
Drainage – well-drained
Years to harvest – 4
Maintenance – intensive pruning for hedgerow management
Life of planting – 50+ years
Machine harvest potential – good with hedgerow management
Suitable markets – processed, some fresh market appeal
Dormant Cornelian cherry
Nutritional highlights – high in anthocyanins
Adaptability – high
Pest issues – generally pest-free except for dogwood anthracnose
Invasive potential – none
Environmental benefits – very early bloom, provides food and habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects
Shared management – high, may be more intensive but similar to other hedgerow crops
Shared equipment – high, no specialized equipment needed
Shared processing – intermediate, may need specialized pit removal
Co-marketing – high for processed products, low for fresh markets, special handling required
Integration potential –conditional
Could fit well in an integrated system but need to determine ecological implications of its susceptibility to dogwood anthracnose.
History and background
A member of the dogwood family, this fruit has been used for 7,000 years as a food crop in ancient Greece. Cornelian cherry is native to regions of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Known primarily as an ornamental plant in the U.S., its cherry-like fruits have been part of a healthy diet in some parts of the world for thousands of years. In its native range, it is still used as a fresh fruit and is popular as a fruit drink.
With properties similar to a tart cherry, other uses include syrup, jelly, jams, pies, wine and baked goods. This historically significant fruit has lost favor in the industrialized age because it does not lend itself well to mass production and processing. The fruit has an elongated pit that is hard to remove because it adheres tightly to the edible flesh. Fruit ripens over an extended period of time, requiring multiple harvests.
Cornelian cherry is a long-lived, small, shrub-like tree that could grow to 15-25 feet if left unmanaged. It could be pruned and maintained as a hedge to be mechanically harvested with a universal type harvester. Trees have been known to live and be fruitful for more than 100 years. Cornelian cherry starts to bloom early in the season, providing an early season forage for bees. Despite the early bloom, fruit production rarely suffers because the trees have an extended flowering, and the bloom tolerates temperatures as low as 18 degrees F.
Observations at Carandale Farm
Carandale Farm started with three Ukrainian cultivars – ‘Elegant’, ‘Pioneer’ and ‘Yellow’ – ordered from One Green World and planted in 2003. The planting stock came as de-potted, fully foliated plants. The leaves were covered by dark spots that we later diagnosed as dogwood anthracnose. Most plants survived transplant, but the disease persisted and killed several plants by the first fall. Remaining plants survived the winter, but new growth was infected and several more plants died during the summer of 2004. Carandale destroyed the remaining plants. (Grower’s Note: One Green World and Northwoods Nursery have both been reliable sources of good quality nursery stock. Of the many plants Carandale ordered from these sources, these were the only problematic stock.)
This was an early reminder that cornelian cherry is a member of the dogwood family. Given a choice, Carandale always ordered fully dormant plants. Not only do they have less transplant shock, but also it is less likely they would harbor insect and disease pests.
In 2005 Carandale ordered two cultivars from Hidden Springs Nursery that were supposed to be resistant to anthracnose leaf-spot. ‘Bodacious’ and ‘Jolico’ were planted in the same area where the infected plants had been. They are surviving but not thriving and have not yet produced fruit. They show symptoms of anthracnose, probably carried over from the previous planting. (Resistance is not the same as immunity.)
In 2006 Carandale resumed the trial in a different area. ‘ Elegant’ and ‘Pioneer’ varieties were ordered and received as dormant bare root stock from Northwoods Nursery. These plants have established well and were harvested in 2012. The plants show some signs of leaf spot, but it appears to have had a minimal impact.
Fruit in the firm red stage is very tart and often used as a substitute for olives in its native range. As the fruit continues to ripen and soften, it becomes sweeter and aromatic with a plum-like flavor. Pits are relatively large and adhere tightly to the flesh.
‘Pioneer’ was slightly earlier, a darker red, juicy, sweet and very soft when fully ripe. ‘Elegant’ was more bright red, somewhat tart and not as soft. Both were pear-shaped and about 1 ½ inches long.
Cornelian cherry could be part of an integrated cropping system. It is too soon to predict its environmental and economic potential. Its very early bloom will attract early season pollinators and build up populations that would benefit later blooming fruit species. It is not determined whether dogwood anthracnose could be passed on to other plant species. Economics will also be influenced by feasibility of maintaining it in a hedgerow that could be mechanically harvested. It does appear that the fruit could share common processing equipment with other species, but its habit of uneven ripening could be a problem.
With the exception of dogwood anthracnose, cornelian cherry is free from most insect and disease pests. The planting is close to the plum subplot, and sting damage was observed on the surface of some fruit, but there was no evidence of larval activity.Plum curculio could be the culprit, but the developing fruit may not be a good environment for egg hatch and larval development.
The plant is considered winter hardy to -25to -30 degrees F (Zone 4), but the fruit buds may be damaged at temperatures below -20 degrees F, making fruit production unreliable in the coldest part of its range. Cornelian cherry is only partially self-fertile, so planting two cultivars for cross pollination is recommended. In 2012 the majority of fruit crops in the test plot were damaged or completely lost due to early budding and later hard freezes, but cornelian cherry came through with little to no damage. It is adaptable and will thrive in soils with a pH of 5.5-7.5. It is not particular about soil type and will grow in heavy clay soil as well as sandy and loamy soils. Plants seem to grow and fruit well in partial shade.
Cornelian cherry was considered an important medicinal plant for centuries. It is a good source of anthocyanins. Depending on the variety produced and the growing conditions, it can be a good source of vitamin C, various minerals, and calcium pectate fiber, which can reduce levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol (Bijelic et al., 2011).
Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, by Lee Reich
Plants for a Future information on Cornelian Cherry
National Agricultural Research Foundation – Pomology Institute (NAGEF-PI), Naoussa, Greece description of Cornelian Cherry
Bijelic, SM, BR Golosin, JI Ninic Todorovic, SB Cerovic and BM Popovic. 2011. “Physicochemical Fruit Characteristics of Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas L.) Genotypes from Serbia.” HortScience 46(6):849–853. <http://hortsci.ashspublications.org/content/46/6/849.full.pdf>, accessed 6/28/13.