Green Scene

Spring doesn’t bloom until Cornelian cherry blooms


The crocuses are already up and I have been anticipating the forsythia. 

It is mid-March as I write this, and while the forsythia is clearly in bud, it has not yet flowered, although I did force some branches weeks ago and had a beautiful taste of spring indoors. 

Recently, I was driving south on Moshulu Parkway on my way to the New York Botanical Garden. 

Glancing to my right, I spotted small numerous trees sporting a hazy mist of yellow around the crown of each tree. 

I remembered having inquired about these trees last year from my plant guru, Marc Hachadourian, director of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections, and then promptly forgetting about them when the blooms faded away. 

These trees are Cornus mas, the Cornelian cherry, and members of the dogwood group (family Cornaceae, genus cornus). Its more flamboyant white or salmon-colored cousins, the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) will bloom later in the season. 

The tree’s real claim to fame is that it is the earliest blooming tree in our area.

Cornus comes from the Latin word meaning “horn,” which may reference the hardness of the wood. Apparently Cornus was actually the Latin name for the Cornelian cherry tree itself. 

Cornelian invokes the red color of the ripe fruit resembling the semi-precious stone carnelian, which can also be spelled “cornelian.” 

While the flowers are hermaphroditic — having male and female structures — young plants do not bear fruit for several years, leading to an assumption of maleness. That created the epithet mas, meaning “male.”

The flowers of the Cornelian cherry bloom before the leaves — having the same definitive characteristics of other dogwoods — unfurl. 

The leaf is between three and five inches long, and ovate (wider at the base than at the tip) with smooth or wavy edges. 

For me, the venous structure is most telling. There is a center vein from which smaller veins branch off and run in curves parallel to the edges of the leaves. 

Most surprising for me is that the fruit, when ripe, is edible by humans, not just animals. It can be eaten raw or made into jam or used as the base for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. The caveat is that the fruit must be completely ripe (even over-ripe), or it is unpalatable. 

This process of over-ripening to achieve edibility, known as “bletting,” is performed with other fruits as well like quince, medlars and persimmons. Bletting causes an increase in the sugar content of the fruit and a decrease in the acids and tannins. 

Tannins are plant compounds that protect plants from insect predators, and their presence can cause a sense of puckering when eating unripe fruit, red wine or tea. The word comes from the high old German tanna meaning “an oak or fir tree.” Bark from oaks, mimosa and chestnuts were used in the tanning of leather, hence the usage “to tan leather.”

The Cornus florida that we will see later in the season comes in white and shades of pink. However, the colored structures that we are tempted to call petals are, in fact, not petals. They are specialized leaf structures known as bracts. 

In the case of the flowering dogwood, it could be thought of as a platter surrounding and showcasing the actual flower. When these bracts form a whorl, as in the flowering dogwood, they are called “involucres.” The enclosed group of flowers is tiny and appear like small knots. 

The fruit in this case will resemble a faceted reddish ball, which is composed of multiple fused drupes. A drupe is a stone fruit (hard seed inside, fleshy layer outside). Common drupes in our fruit stores include peaches, olives and mangoes. 

We already have encountered fused drupes in the fruit of the Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera).

The family Cornaceae is made up of approximately 60 species that can be found in northern and southern temperate zones and tropical mountains. 

The most recent research, with the discovery of a perimineralized fruit of the extinct Cornuspiggae, indicates their presence 73 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. Perimineralization is the replacement of internal tissues by minerals forming a 3-D cast of the organism.

Years ago, we went hiking in eastern Canada, and the trail was bordered with an architectural and beautiful low-growing groundcover. The plant had six bright green leaves with a white dogwood-like flower at the center. Invariably, I needed to buy a guide to the local flora and was able to identify this beautiful plant as Cornus canadensis or bunchberry. 

Unfortunately, despite being hardy in zones like Riverdale, it did not make it through its first year. It is a much prettier plant than pachysandra, so perhaps I will try it again.

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