Cherries from the Past

Today I walked around our one acre yard and garden to see what was venturing forth during this warm spell. Everything is starting to grow but there are always a few early birds way ahead of the others. One of these is the Cornelian Cherry, well known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Referring to the Golden Age, Ovid wrote:

      And the earth, untroubled,

      Unharried by hoe or plowshare, brought forth all

      That men had need for, and those men were happy

      Gathering berries from the mountain sides,

      (Cornel) cherries, or blackcaps, and edible acorns.

                   From The Metamorphoses

Our two Cornelian Cherry trees always bloom in early spring if the weather warms then. I’m happy to see these delicate yet sturdy blossoms – but even though they tolerate some frost and have an extended flowering time, I have lost cherry harvests if the temperature drops too low. Now I take no chances if the temperature drops below 29 degrees and drape lightweight row covers over as many branches as possible. I stand on a ladder and use clothespins to secure the fabric – a little precarious. This is the time of year I am glued to the weather reports every day and hope I don’t have this assignment!

The reason I go to these lengths is that I love Cornelian Cherries. I toss them in the freezer after removing the pits and then use them in smoothies or fantastic jam. Basically, they can be used any way traditional cherries are used. If the gods are with me, I plan to use them in more recipes this year. Cornelian Cherries are very tart until they ripen and fall easily from the tree. Then they are somewhat soft and have a sweet and powerful taste. Our Red Star variety is very productive, especially if frosts haven’t thinned them. Our other variety, Pioneer, is somewhat less productive but I am trying to give some extra care lately. They are perfect for organic growing because they need no spraying for any disease – I’ve had no problems in the dozen or so years I have tended them. They are easy to grow and don’t take up a lot of space  – ours are only about 15 feet tall. My only nemesis is deer who love the winter buds and shoots. I once lost all the fruit this way. Now I spray with Deer Scram from Pinetree Garden Seeds. I learned all the fascinating lore and growing requirements from one of my favorite books, Uncommon Fruits Worthy Of Attention, by Lee Reich. Those requirements are quite simple: sun and good garden soil preferably with some calcium also added. They grow well from zones 5-8.

Since we ran out of frozen cherries in February, I recently checked the website,, the only nursery I know that has named varieties bred for fruit quality. This is where I purchased the two that I have and was thinking of perhaps  purchasing one or two more. But I was surprised to find only one yellow fruiting variety there. After a phone call, I was told that they do sell other varieties but they were already sold out in January. The red varieties they sell are:  Red Star, Black Plum from Russia (even the name sounds good!), and Kazenlakz from Bulgaria, which has 11/2 inch long fruits. I may talk to their horticulturist on Monday regarding the yellow variety, but its description made it sound more ornamental, which is the usual use for them.

These fruits have always been a staple in Eastern Europe and grow wild there. According to Lee Reich, ” a former monastery garden, (now a botanical garden) near Kiev has trees that are between 150 and 200 years old and still bear regular crops of fruit.” The wood is extremely hard – considered as hard as iron,  and was used for spokes of wheels and spears.

The more I think about these trees, the more determined I am to order very early for next year and prepare a location. And since any organic fruit is on the pricey side in stores, my vacillation has now officially ended! I may even try making one into a standard…

Here’s to the new Golden Age!

Mary Kay submitted this comment on my About page, so I am duplicating it here along with my answer:

Hi Mary –

I just wanted to tell you that I loved your article on your cornelian cherries. I am thinking of ordering a fruit-bearing size tree from Lucile Whitman has a good selection and sells larger trees as well as grafted plants. I think she grows plants for Raintree as well as other nurseries. I am very interested in “Elegant” and “Red Star.”

Can you tell me – how long did it take for your Raintree plants to bear after planting and what size did they ship? Do you prefer one of your varieties for eating fresh? I love the idea of using them for smoothies, too.

Thanks so much!

Mary Kay Crowder

My reply is:

Hi Mary Kay –

Thanks so much for your generous comments! I noticed that One Green World also has the Red Star and Pioneer varieties (plus a yellow variety). Whitman Farms seems to have them at a lower price which could mean that they are younger hence would take longer to bear. Some nurseries also sell seedlings, because they are also sold as decorative trees rather than for harvesting. But the seedlings would take much longer to bear and the fruit would not likely be as good.  It would be helpful to confirm that you are getting a grafted named variety. Whitman’s should know how old their grafted varieties are and when they are likely to begin bearing. If I remember, mine began bearing several years after they were planted – they were around 2 – 3 feet tall when planted. At first the flowers are all male – the Latin translation of cornus mas is “male cornel”, but after a couple years, the perfect flowers are produced. Every year after that my trees produced more and more cherries till last year (about 8 years later),  the branches were solid fruit! Red Star is my best producer, but I have voles, so they could have affected the Pioneer more. Two varieties are needed for pollination. Both my varieties taste about the same with a very deep somewhat wild, fresh, sweet taste, like a fine wine to me with a hint of the earth they were grown in, and a hint of long ago memories. Their final sweetness evolves after the fruits are fully ripe, being loose enough to fall or even on the ground. I’m still enjoying smoothies from last year’s crop and they make a great raw jam simply blended with honey. Hope this helps, and best of luck with your trees!

Mary Kay emailed to ask about pitting — here is my answer:

Hi Mary Kay –

Thanks for your question…..For some reason, perhaps because I worked so hard growing the cherries, I pitted all of them by hand with a small serrated paring knife. It took some finger judo and hours of time, but I became somewhat adept after the first hundred or so. When my husband wandered over and suggested using a cherry pitting tool, I probably looked a little askance, like farriers must have looked at the first automobiles. I may graduate from my medieval time warp this year and try a pitting device. The pits are oblong, like the cherries themselves, so they may not adapt to the gadget idea, but I will attempt to propel myself out of my Dutch indigenous ways and report the results on an August blog.

Happy Tree Growing

One thought on “Cherries from the Past

  1. Thank you so much for answering my questions. I have ordered a four-year-old Elegant and a potted Red Star from Whitman Farms and am really excited! Can you tell me the best way to pit the cornelian cherries? I will probably freeze or dehydrate a lot of them.

    Mary Kay

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