Here's another early flowering shrub – and this one is definitely my favourite . . .
#012 : Cornus mas
If, like me, your garden is in a (relatively) dry area with alkaline soil and the brash yellow of Forsythia doesn't float your boat – then Cornelian Cherry may be the shrub for you. I first spotted the starry flowers on the angular green stems on a very large specimen in a field corner in Hertfordshire, at the time I didn't know what it was – but I wanted one so I found out its name and tracked one down. When we moved to Suffolk I bought a rather pot-bound Cornelian Cherry, it took a few years to get going and to flower but now I have to prune it to keep it in check . . . once settled in it can become a small copse!
The flowers are quite sparse this year, in previous years the twigs have been covered with fat buds that split into four green sepals to reveal a cluster of tiny yellow buds on cream stalks – these also open with four petals, four stamens and a central style. Each tiny cluster is like a miniature bouquet.
The past 18 months have been much wetter than usual and this winter unusually mild, not the best conditions for Cornelian Cherries which are native to the South-east Europe and South-west Asia, think Iran, Armenia . . . stony well-drained hillsides, hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter. They are valued for their small red fleshy fruits, the colour of the gemstone Cornelian (or Carnelian) – I made fruit-leather with some one year, it was rather good. Cornelian Cherries used to be a popular fruit in England (maybe the large specimen I first saw was once in an orchard, they can be very long-lived) the fruits are still used in Turkey to make 'serbet' a sweet fruit drink and in Ukraine it is an important commercial fruit with many named varieties.
If you are familiar with botanical latin names, you will have spotted that the Cornus mas isn't a Cherry (prunus) but a Dogwood (cornus).
So, what does Cornus mas mean?
Cornus means 'hard' like horn, and it refers to the wood. Cornus wood is hard and heavy – it sinks in water - and was traditionally used for spears and tool handles which needed to be tough and not split and bend when used.
Mas means 'male' as in 'masculine', this eludes to the Cornelian Cherry's robustness.
Look out for Cornelian Cherries in parks and gardens – they are easy to spot at this time of year when covered with the starbursts of distinctive pale citrus-yellow flowers. One of my favourites is in Cambridge, on the corner of the University Botanic Gardens at the junction of Brooklands Avenue with Trumpington Road – an uplifting sight as you wait for the traffic lights to change.