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Cornelian Cherries

Cornelian Cherries at the Blithewold Mansion/Arboretum in RI
Dave Scandurra of Edible Landscapes of Cape Cod in Barnstable
Cornelian Cherries at the Blithewold Mansion/Arboretum in RI

I have a friend in Barnstable who’s always telling me about unusual edible plants, particularly perennials. Recently, he told me he’s planting something new called a Cornelian Cherry. It’s a tree, with small red fruits that look sort of like a cranberry, and when I asked him if he would talk to me about it for the radio, he said I actually needed to call a man in Wisconsin named Little John Broom Maker.

"Another thing I do is I make handmade brooms, I don’t meet a lot of other broom makers, and I don’t meet a lot of other people who are into Cornelian Cherries, or have even tasted one, or know what it is! It’s kind of funny," John told me.

In addition to being a broom maker, Little John is our country’s Cornelian Cherry guru. He became well known for his love of Cornus mas, the Cornelian cherry tree, after the 2016 election, when a lot of vitriol was flying around on the internet.

"I’m like, I don’t want to get caught up in this, and I know, I’m going to start doing Cornelian cherry memes. And it’s pretty funny because it just started out as a lark, and now I’ve got over 300 memes in a folder on Facebook and just a wide variety of hilarity."

John first learned about Cornelian Cherries when he saw them mentioned in a book called Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden. Soon after he saw a Cornelian Cherry tree at a nursery and brought it home, and then, he started noticing the trees all over the place:

"I went to pick up a friend at work and there were about four of these Cornelian cherries right along a sidewalk and I was like, holy cow man, you know what these are?! And he said yeah, they’re a mess. They’re littering the sidewalk, I said I’ll be back with my tarps and I’ll be here to shake branches tomorrow."

This started a love affair with the Cornelian cherry tree. It’s native to southern Europe and southwestern Asia, where the fruit is much more widely known.

"Some people have said it’s kind of a cross between the flavor of a sour cherry and a cranberry, I heard someone else say it’s kind of plum like. Now there are yellow selections, most commonly Cornelian cherries are red fruited, but then there are some that are yellow there’s even one that’s an orange fruited one. But the yellow selections are less acidic, fruitier — it’s definitely fun to taste different varieties."

But it’s not only the fruits that have John so excited.

"I mean the whole tree itself is just has so many uses. I like to just call it the ultimate permaculture plant," John said.

"In permaculture they say each plant should have at least three uses. Well, this is beyond I mean, just the fruit itself. You know wine and jam and jelly, fruit leather, compote, juice; the leftover pits can be roasted and ground and made into a coffee like beverage."

John then explained that some people take the pits and squeeze them for an edible oil. And the wood is so dense it sinks in water, so it’s almost like a temperate ebony. He added that historically Cornelian cherry wood was used to make the gears in clocks, and in Ancient Roman times it was used to make spears because it’s so hard.

You won’t believe it, but the list goes on. The wood is also used as a dye plant to turn wool red, the leaves can be used to make tea, and some people are even cutting the tips of the branches and innoculating milk with the bacteria growing there to make a yogurt like substance. John’s enthusiasm for the plant is contagious.

"They’re just an underappreciated plant, or many times, or unnoticed. So I would encourage people to just get out, try to find them, inaturalist is a great app, and people can log in their findings, and find other people’s plants that they find in the landscape."

My friend in Barnstable reports that his newly planted Cornelian cherry trees are doing well, and that he’s started spotting them in landscaping and botanical garden plantings in our area. He hasn’t gotten any fruit yet, but he’s betting on the advice of Little John Broom Maker who once said in a Facebook meme: “if someone tells you that Cornelian Cherries aren’t the most delicious fruit ever, stop talking to them. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.”

Here's a link to Little John's Facebook page where people can see his memes.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.