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Does the Dogwood Bear Bitter Fruit? Or Tasty?

Q. My seven year old wants to eat the fruit of our dogwood trees. They look a little like big cherries, are light red and have dots all over. He told me that he heard they were edible. I think he tried them already and is now asking for 'permission' because I caught him getting ready to eat one. Are they edible? Thanks,

    ---Gema in Fredrick, MD

We planted a dogwood tree in the front yard about five or six years ago and this is the first year I've seen fruit on it. The bright red berries grow in clumps, and I have read that they might be edible. Is this true? If so, what can I expect them to taste like? Could I use them in muffins or pancakes?

    ---Evelyn in central New Jersey

A. There are many different types of dogwoods, some of which bear fruit that's "edible" (meaning you won't get sick if you eat it) and some whose edible fruits are so tasty they're a sought-after delicacy.

The botanical moniker of the dogwood most renowned for its fruits is Cornus mas, better known by the common name of 'Cornelian Cherry'. Its fruit is praised by the likes of wild food expert Steve ("Wildman") Brill and rare fruit expert Dr. Lee Reich, who once caused a conniption by picking and eating some of the fruits off a tree in New York's Central Park.

As related in the Cornelian Cherry chapter of his classic book, "Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden" (Timber Press), Lee explained to concerned passersby that he was enjoying a delicacy that we humans had been eating for over seven thousand years, with both archaeology and ancient writings serving as evidence that early Greeks and Romans gathered and savored the "cherries".

Lee recounts that the great British herbalist Gerard sang the fruit's praises (as "a cherry") in 1597, and that the plant was actively grown FOR its fruits—sometimes called "Cornell Plums"—in the 1700's. He adds that the species is still very popular—as a fruit tree—in its native Western Asia and Eastern Europe, where many homes have a tree or two in their gardens and orchards, and the ripe fruits are a common sight in local markets at harvest time.

"The Cornelian Cherry is also a very ornamental tree," explains Lee, who made it one of the 'Top 40 plants' in his newest book "Landscaping with Fruit" (Storey). "The blooms look great—and they last for a month, which is a very long time for a flowering tree. Mature trees produce fruit almost every year and the trees are very long-lived, despite topping out at a landscape-friendly 25 feet."

He describes the fruits as "oval, cherry-like, and fire-engine red with a single stone inside," and likens their taste to that of sour cherries. But he quickly adds that some people don't find them to taste very sour at all! Lee relates that he once served a big batch of ripe 'Cornelian Cherries' to the attendees at a NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmers Association) conference and recalls that "60% of the people who tried them thought they were too tart to eat by themselves; that they'd have to be used in a recipe with sugar or other added sweeteners, just like sour cherries and cranberries. But 40% of the crowd loved them just as they were, pronouncing the fruits sweet enough to eat out of hand."

He describes the leaves of the Cornelian Cherry dogwood as a "satiny green in the summer, often (but not always) turning mahogany red in the fall". The small yellow flowers are among the earliest of Spring bloomers to appear, he notes, "opening up well before those of forsythia."

While the most common fruits are red, some named varieties bear fruits that are white or yellow when ripe. And in the wild, where the trees have cross pollinated for perhaps millennia, Lee notes that the range of fruit colors and shapes can seem almost endless: fruits in the shape of barrels and pears and colors ranging from cream to almost black. And they're super-nutritious; on average, the fruits contain twice as much Vitamin C as the same weight of oranges, and one mature tree can produce 30 to 50 pounds of fruit a season.

In his excellent "Wild Vegetarian Cookbook" (Harvard Common Press), noted forager Steve "Wildman" Brill offers several recipes for what he describes as "the national fruit of Turkey", including a home-made version of the Cornelian Cherry soda you'll find for sale in parts of Europe and Asia, an animal-free gelatin-like desert, and, of course, a Cornelian Cherry pastry.

Lee Reich adds that he has also sampled the fruit of the "Kousa dogwood" (Cornus kousa) another common landscape ornamental originally from Asia. "The fruits are weird," he explains; "they look like little land mines and have an unusual texture—but they're also very sweet, not at all sour." Other sources describe the fruits as looking more like aspberries—or the business end of a flail or mace. Anyway, they're round, bumpy, and distinctly different from the other types under discussion here.

And what about the fruits of the also-very-common-in-the landscape Native American 'flowering dogwood' (Cornus florida)? The USA National Phenology Network at the University of Arizona warns that the fruits are edible by wildlife but toxic to humans, while an entry at Wikipedia says they're edible, and used to sweeten tea in Mexico.

We asked our good friend Dr. Jim Duke, retired USDA researcher, renowned expert on the medicinal properties of plants, and author of the excellent Green Pharmacy (Rodale Press) series of books what he thought. Jim reported that he has sampled the fruits of his flowering dogwood and suffered no ill effects. But he also does not recommend them. "They tasted terrible," he says.

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