STARVED FOR COLOR in the landscape after months of drab weather, many gardeners eagerly welcome the brash, chrome-yellow flowers of forsythia. Even though, in the watery light of early spring, the blooms have all the subtlety of a clashing cymbal interrupting a string quartet.
I confess: I have a personal soft spot for this botanical blowhard — just not in my space-challenged garden. With a motley growing habit, mostly unremarkable foliage and little to no fall interest, forsythia is a bit of a one-hit wonder: great for celebrating the end of winter, but what do you do with it during the other months of the year?
I have a suggestion that offers plenty of cheer and far less clamor. Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is actually not a true cherry, but a member of the dogwood family. This small tree is woefully underutilized in Pacific Northwest gardens. Such is often the case when a plant’s bloom season falls during a time of the year that sees far less traffic at neighborhood nurseries than during the busy growing season.
But the good plant folks at Great Plant Picks (greatplantpicks.org) stand behind Cornelian cherry and offer the following recommendation on their beautiful, newly reworked website: “This lovely small tree is easy to grow, tolerates a wide range of conditions and is quite drought-tolerant once established.”
So, you know you can count on Cornelian cherry to thrive in your garden. Now, allow me to introduce you to its many charms.
Beginning in late winter, plump rounded buds along lacy bare branches burst into clusters of sunny yellow blossoms. Hello, spring! With a pleasingly rounded form, Cornelian cherry may be trained as a multitrunked small tree and worked into mixed plantings alongside hellebores, primroses, early bulbs and other early spring-border beauties.
Cornelian cherry also makes a striking statement when planted in multiples, like the mature plantings along a drive in the parking lot of the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture, located just off Northeast 41st Street in the Montlake neighborhood. Being able to reference an established plant growing in the landscape before you purchase it is pure gold. You’re welcome.
Spring bloom is followed by lustrous dark green foliage, which offers an attractive foil to brilliant, edible red fruit that ripens in late summer. While too tart to eat raw (with a flavor described as a cross between cranberries and sour cherries), the “cherries” (technically drupes) can be made into delicious preserves and are relished by songbirds and other wildlife.
Rich purple-red fall foliage and beautifully mottled exfoliating bark that peels to reveal tan, gray and brown patches round out all four seasons of garden interest. Cornelian cherry is a deciduous tree with exceptionally hard wood, slow-growing to 10 feet in 10 years, and 15 to 20 feet high and as wide at maturity. Provide full sun to light shade. Hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8.