The Cornelian cherry have been expectant for the better part of January. Round buds plump and peppering the branches. Look closely at the beginning of February and you see the dark casings that hold them tightly, ruptured and revealing a seam of gold. I return daily as they gather momentum, passing the witch hazel, which is already perfuming the exit from the garden, and crossing the track to the ditch where I have planted a grove of Cornus mas. Here, staggered on the steep slopes, they step from one side to the other in a group of half a dozen to frame the passage the bridge makes across the water.
I am eager for life this far into winter and the cornus budburst happens at the same time that the snowdrops claim these last two weeks of February and as they pass the baton to the primroses. I have combined the three here deliberately and en masse, so that the crossing becomes an event to focus the near horizon. With the waning skeletons of the garden now behind me, the energy in the cornus help start to move things forward. One at a time, but quickly gathering pace, the darkness in the bare branches is eclipsed by a myriad tiny cadmium yellow flowers of invigorating intensity. Each bud contains up to twenty tiny flowers that are as much stamen as petal, but the accumulation of thousands make the trees appear to be spangled with an inner light. With the snowdrops and primroses they are a magnet for early pollinators.
The cornus are young and are currently not much taller than myself. I brought them in three years ago as root-balled specimens to replace the brambly hedge that had swallowed this little ravine. Cleared and opened up again the banks have been host to meadowsweet, willowherb and other marsh-loving perennials. Though they are very slow growers – creating a wood so dense it sinks in water and is highly prized for making tools – I hope that eventually they will grow to about the height of a hawthorn and touch in places where I have planted them close enough together. In time, flaking limbs, branching low and twisting give the trees winter character – a contorted, Japanese quality – and me the opportunity of raising the canopy by pruning out the understory. Something to look forward to and deliberate upon whilst doing so.
I watched for the first couple of years to find the places where the cornus might be at home, because I knew they would not take the wetness that our native Cornus sanguinea is happy with. Although widespread in Southern Europe and Southwestern Asia, their preference is for ground that holds moisture and doesn’t dry out entirely in the summer, but that never gets waterlogged. It has been an education to see how they have already shown me where they like to be. I hit water when planting two, the springs in the bank not being visible above ground. Since the land is steeply sloping I felt it would be free-draining even with running water, and so I went with it. Sure enough, now that the trees have had two summers to settle in, I can see that, given a damp position they are already growing more lushly than those on the higher, dryer ground. Only one has suffered from being planted in a boggy pocket, and seemed slowly to be going backwards, although it has started to shoot from the base, so may be making its own adjustments. Time will tell as the conditions express themselves further in growth, but for now all of them are happy.
My mission now is to extend the snowdrop trail that I have growing under the nearby hazel to follow their canopies. The snowdrops will be sure to let me know where the ground is too wet, but they are likely to enjoy the drying effect that the roots of the cornus will have in the summer when in growth. The trees will be in flower for the best part of a month, so I have underplanted them with Tenby daffodils which will pick up as the snowdrops wane and the cornus dim.
In summer, the Cornelian cherry is easy on the eye in a natural setting, for its leaves are not unlike our native dogwood. Late in summer, in a warm position where the fruit can ripen, you will see that they are hung with small drops of ruby red, which are highly prized by birds. Though too tart for us to eat raw, they have been an important food source for over 7000 years in Greece, where they are still made into jam and raki. As autumn comes the foliage colours russet and gently red and, by the time the leaves drop, you will already see the embryonic buds, ready and waiting for the time when we gardeners are hungry for signs of life.
Words: Dan Pearson / Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 16 February 2019