Cornelian Cherry

Cornus mas

The Cornelian Cherry is a deciduous species native to Central and Southern Europe which thrives best in the Donau-Auen National Park in dry areas at higher elevations. This species has long been popular thanks to the bright yellow flowers which appear early in the year, usually in March, and due to its edible and highly versatile fruit.

In Central Europe, the Cornelian Cherry is a shrub reaching heights of around 5m. Rarely does it develop to become a small tree with a loose, rounded crown and one which spreads by way of intensive sprouting of rootstock and suckers. A very slow-growing shrub, it can live up to 100 years. Its relatively straight and slim elongated twigs are minutely downy and olive-green in colour. The bark is yellowish-grey, thin, furrowed, scaly and flaking. Leaf and flower buds have varying forms: the leaf buds are oblong and pointy with short, close-pressed hairs while the flower buds are round like a ball and stalk-like. The leaves of the Cornus mas are difficult to differentiate from those of its relative Cornus sanguinea, the Dogwood. Both have leaves which are 4-10cm long, 2.5-4cm wide, paired, glossy green on top and bright green on the undersides. The most certain mode of differentiation is the manner of pilosity, or hairiness, of the leaves: bushels of hair ("beards") may be found in the axil of the leaf veins of the Cornelian Cherry. Equally attention-getting are the deep red hues of its autumn foliage. In contrast, the Dogwood displays spiky individual hairs across its entire leaf surface. The golden yellow flowers which appear in early spring – long before foliation – are arranged in compact clusters of 10-25 flowers on stalks of around 5mm in length. The berry-like fruit is bright red when mature (August to October), up to 12mm long and around 5mm wide.

The Cornelian Cherry is native to most of Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Mediterranean region. Its chief range is however the Mediterranean region and in coastal areas, as well as the hinterland of the Black Sea. However, it has yet to be determined whether its occurrence in the Mediterranean area is entirely natural or the result of cultivation for gardens. The species may be found in all provinces in Austria and run to seed in Tyrol, Salzburg and Carinthia. As a shrub which prefers aridity, the Cornelian Cherry is found only sporadically in the National Park, for example at higher elevations in the hardwood riparian forests and on high river banks.

Endangerment and Conservation Status
Classified as vulnerable in certain European regions such as Bavaria; regionally vulnerable in Austria, e.g. in the Carinthian Basin and the south eastern foothills of the Alps. Only sporadically occurring in the National Park yet not categorized as vulnerable.

Ecological Characteristics
In Central Europe, the Cornelian Cherry prefers sunny slopes, hardwood riparian forests, sparse oak forests, but also the edges of forests and trails. It thrives on loose, humus-rich, limey soils in lowlands and rolling hills. The Cornus mas is a characteristic species of xerothermic, submediterranean Downy Oak forests and subcontinental oak steppe forests.

Special Characteristics
The Cornelian Cherry has the hardest wood of all native woody plants. A cross-section of its trunk reveals a deep, red-brown core which stands in sharp contrast to the reddish-white sapwood. Its timber is tough, difficult to split but polishes nicely and shrinks considerably. The ancient Greeks and Romans cherished its properties and used it in the production of lance shafts. It has been traditionally popular among turners, who use it to manufacture tool handles, spokes and ladder rungs. But otherwise it is the fruit of the Cornus mas which has attracted the most attention: as far back as antiquity, the berries have been used to make conserves, jellies and candied fruits. But because there is little flesh on the berry, these culinary efforts are extremely labour-intensive and have thus fallen out of fashion. Yet the plant remains important for use in bee pastures and in hedgerows.


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