Cornus Mas: A Shrub with a Golden Glow

April 26th, 2016 | 4 Comments »

Not much is blooming in my garden now. The snowdrops are almost gone, the grape hyacinths are just beginning to open and the pulmonaria by the front door are slowly showing their spots. There is a star in the garden, though, although that star isn’t a show-off.

My bashful star is Cornus mas, a shrub that is little known and easily overlooked.

Cornus mas, or Cornelian cherry, is a large shrub or small tree that is hardy to zone 4. It doesn’t push itself in your face like forsythia; rather, from a distance it sends out a golden glow that at this time of year warms the soul and draws the eye as quickly as Roger Moore drew his golden gun. (If you remember the film, you’ll know that the golden gun didn’t belong to James Bond but to the villain. Still, the metaphor came so easily that I had to use it.)


Cornelian cherries are not very photogenic. Getting a photo even this good wasn't easy.
Cornelian cherries are not photogenic. This picture isn’t very good and it’s the best I have. 


Cornus mas is a slow-growing deciduous shrub or small tree. I planted the one you see in the photo above in 2005 and in eleven years, it has barely doubled in size. The branches are upright and the short trunk needs to be pruned up if you want to show off the exfoliating bark which, on my specimen, is nothing to write home about. (Will it become better with age? I hope so.)

The leaves aren’t much to write home about either. They are dark green and slightly glossy in summer; occasionally they will colour in autumn  but overall they are so uninteresting that I can’t find a single photo that shows them in any season.

So why do I like this shrub?

For one thing, it is pest-free — and that’s a big plus in an organic garden. It isn’t particular, growing well in sun or part shade. It isn’t fussy about the soil either, although I’m sure that a fertile soil and a modicum of water will help it grow faster. Most of all, it doesn’t need coddling. In fact, the only thing I can remember doing to mine is pruning out dead wood, a pleasant task whenever the sun is shining.

Still, the main reason I like my Cornelian cherry is the act it puts on at this time of year. It is my surrogate swimmer, cautiously putting a toe in the water, then pulling it back. It is my thermometer, gauging my level of optimism, telling me whether spring is here or not.

On the first warm days the shrub remains bare. It’s smart — it knows that one swallow does not make a spring. But after a few more days, tiny buds appear at the end of short twiggy side shoots.


The buds are showing the tiniest bit of yellow-gold.
The buds are showing the tiniest bit of yellow-gold.


And then the Cornus mas loses its caution. With every warmish day, the fuzzy buds crack open a little more to reveal the flower that will be.


Fuzzy coverings peel back to reveal the flower-to-be.
Don’t you want to touch that fuzzy sepal covering? I know I do. 


Cautiously the flowers emerge.


Another day, more of the bud is open.
The flowers-to-be reach out for the sun as if they are shrugging off a winter overcoat.


Borne in small umbels, or flower stalks that spread from a common point, the flowers are small and dainty. They appear on bare branches, which is a good thing considering how easily leaves would overwhelm them.


cornus mas and more-006
The bark looks quite attractive in this photo, a mix of grey and tan that sets off the yellow blossoms very nicely.


Even fully open, the flower clusters don’t shout the way forsythia does. Yet their yellow petals, bending backwards to expose hairy stems topped with white anthers, appeal to me much more.



A tiny blossom.



The fruit is said to resemble coffee berries. It is edible and when ripe, is a dark ruby red or bright yellow. I can’t say which — my tree has never produced fruit of any colour.

Does Cornus mas grow in your garden? Does it produce fruit? And do you use that fruit, as the people in Armenia and Azerbaijan do, to make vodka?

If so, please invite me over for a drink.


Visiting Gardens: Nine Do’s and a Don’t

April 20th, 2016 | 10 Comments »
Visiting gardens is one the joys of my life. For the last four years, I've been hosting small group tours to gardens in Britain and Italy, working alongside an outstanding professional travel agent based in Vancouver. Julia Guest at Travel Concepts does the detailed planning that is essential to ensure a good garden tour. Without her work, the tours couldn't happen. Without the cooperation of individual garden owners, the tours wouldn't be as inspirational. And without the companionship of the men and women who have been part of the tours, they


Allusions in the Garden

April 12th, 2016 | 13 Comments »
The most recent post on the excellent British website ThinkinGardens is about the use of allusions in gardens. Noel Kingsbury, one of three people taking part in the conversation, suggested that allusions were all well and good in gardens from other times and places but that in today's gardens, they are outmoded. "Allusion in the West which previous generations of artists and garden makers used was based on Classical and Christian mythologies. Very few of [us] are now conversant with either. So – first question – how do we create and use


Can spring be far behind?

April 5th, 2016 | 12 Comments »
Percy Bysshe Shelley knew a thing or two about spring. His Ode to the West Wind ends with a hopeful phrase: Be through my lips to unawakened Earth The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? At Glen Villa, the answer seems to be yes, it can be. Far too far behind. Is this April unseasonably cold? Perhaps not. But after a mild winter, and a few days of beautifully warm sunshine, my hopes were high. It seemed that the unawakened earth was awakening,