When pondering dogwoods, our first thoughts often go to the flowering trees. But, actually, Cornaceae is a large plant family that also encompasses shrubs and groundcovers from around the world.
The common name heralds back to medieval England when the straight, dense stems of a shrubby dogwood, Cornus sanguinea, were used as meat skewers, or ‘dagwoods’.
More recently the bark of the Eastern Dogwood Tree (Cornus florida) was boiled and used as a treatment for mange in dogs – so the common name may have a two-fold meaning.
There are even fairies associated with aforementioned tree, with the Cherokee believing that the Dogwood People, a race of tiny benevolent ‘brownies’, lived in the trees doing good deeds and watching out for those who dwelled nearby.
There are other benefits to having a dogwood in the garden and the one we seem to overlook the most are the abundant edible berries or drupes that they bear.
The Cornelian Cherry or Cornus mas has the longest history of cultivation, dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. This tree is native to southern Europe and adjacent parts of Asia, with the rod-shaped red fruits (which also come in yellow) having a tart cranberry-sour cherry flavour.
These are used to process into sauces, syrups and homemade liqueurs – all of which are very high in vitamin C. This species can be grown as a tree or bush form and has very attractive bright yellow flowers that cover the branches starting in late winter, before the leaves emerge.
Large pear-shaped fruits are also available from cultivars such as ELEGANT, which hails out of Ukraine.
Bunchberry or Cornus canadensis is an often difficult to grow evergreen groundcover that is found across Canada.
While notoriously onerous to establish in cultivated gardens (if you want to try, I suggest 1 gallon pot size to start), they are commonly found growing in abundance in open alpine forests, such as those surrounding Whistler.
The white flowers are perfect miniatures of the four-petaled bracts found on many tree forms and are followed by clusters of bright red drupes that are high in pectin, making them useful to adding to runny jellies.
This one might be best left as an incidental snack while out hiking, as the berries have a very subtle flavour and large seeds, often being a bit mealy when picked late. This attractive groundcover only grows to about 20cm tall with foliage that shifts to red or a rich burgundy during the colder weather.
Last on my list of edible dogwood treats is one that looks as good as it tastes, Cornus kousa, which is native to China, Korea and Japan. These small flowering trees can be found in many of our front yards with ‘Satomi’ (pink blooms) and var. chinensis (heavy display of pure white flowers) being the most common cultivars. There are even some well-behaved variegated forms such as ‘Wolf Eyes’ (creamy-white margins) and ‘Summer Gold,’ which add a splash of colour after the late spring flowering period.
This species is quite disease resistant and tolerates full sun much better than the old-fashioned Eastern Dogwood Tree (Cornus florida).
If that wasn’t enough, the canopy is loaded with what appears to be warty cherries (about 3cm wide) which when ripe have firm skins but are soft inside. The flavour has sweet peach-mango overtones and the fruit can be pureed and baked into muffins, made into jam or added to smoothies.
The important thing here is to pick at peak ripeness, as the taste can be unpleasant if harvested too early or late.
Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author