Species: Cornus mas
Related species: Cornus sanguinea
Names: European Cornel, Dogwood, Kornelle, Herlitze, Dirndlstrauch
The wood of Cornus mas is extremely dense and hard (sometimes compared to Yew) and, unlike the wood of most other woody plant species, it sinks in water. This makes it a valuable wood for crafting into tool handles, parts of machines and weapons. Already the Greeks used the wood of Cornus mas to construct spears, javelins and bows, considering it far superior to any other wood. The wood’s association with weaponry was so well known that the Greek name for it was used as a synonym for “spear” in poetry during the fourth and third century BC. (see more folklore and history below)
Another characteristic are the bright yellow flowers that open in January or February when other shrubs and plants are still dormant. The Cornelian cherry is one of the first to flower in the garden, often when all else is still covered in white and thus is an important plant for bees and other pollinating insects at a time when they hardly find any other food.
The bright red, cherry-like fruits ripen from August to September. They are best harvested when overripe and already show a darkred or almost black color. This is achieved by shaking the tree every so often and collecting the fallen fruits with cloths or blankets that have been spread out beneath the tree. The fruits are especially rich in Vitamin C and traditionally made into liquors or fruit schnapps (for example Kornelkirschenwasser), juices, syrup, soft drinks, jam and jellies.
The wood is also a favorite for walking sticks, most famously the Ziegenhainer walking cane, status symbol of the students of Jena, who used the stick not only as an aid during walks but also as a weapon of defense and attack in students’ duels. Especially sort after are knotted or twisted sticks. (For similar uses see also the Irish Shillelagh).
History and folklore:
According to a Trojan war legend the Thracian Emperor had Polydoros, youngest son of the King of Troja, killed by spears made of the Cornel’s wood. The shafts of the spears began to sprout anew from the young men’s spilled blood:
“In the place of Polydoros’ death grew a Cornel Cherry. When Aeneas escaped the Trojan massacre he landed on the Thracian coast. In search for firewood for making a sacrifice for the gods he and his troups found bushes of Cornel cherries; but when they began to cut them human blood came spilling from the branches, upon which the voice of Polydoros’ ghost was to be heard.”
Alexander The Great was victorious against the Persians when introducing the Phalanges, who carried up to 6 meter long lances (sarissae) made of the Cornel’s wood.
Ovid repeatedly mentiones the cornel in different contexts and as a synonym for spear. In one instance he mentions the lance-points were not of iron but the “blank cornel would pierce the face” [of the victim].
In Homer’s Odysse cornel cherries are given as food to the pigs into which Circe turned the men of Odysseus.
A dogwood that was believed to have sprung from the shaft of the javelin that Romulus threw from the slopes of the Aventine Hill, stood on the Palatine Hill in Rome until it was accidentally destroyed by Gajus Caesar. From what Plutarch says, it appears that this tree was one of the talismans of the city, whose safety was reckoned to be bound up in the tree (Brand).
Romulus used his lance (made of the Cornel’s wood) to mark the borders of the new-found city of Rome. The lance sprouted anew as a sign for the successful founding of the City of Rome.
According to some Romulus transformed into the deity Quirinus, who is also associtaed with Janus. Quiris means ‘spear’:
“The flamen of Portunus performed the ritual greasing of the spear of the god Quirinus on August 17, day of the Portunalia and on the same date had been consecrated the temple of Janus.”
According to Phrygian myth the bark of Cornus mas has a symbolical relation with the Gordian Knot.
The epithet ‘cornelian’ is taken from the semiprecious gemstone, sometimes spelled Carnelian, since the fruits are similar in color.
Pictures: Wiebke Rost