An ancient fruit : the cornelian cherry

The cornelian, or cornel, cherry is a small, shrub-like tree that can grow up to 15-25 feet. Cornelian cherry trees have been known to live and be fruitful for over a hundred years. It blooms early in the season, providing an early season forage for bees, but despite this early bloom, fruit production rarely suffers. The trees have an extended flowering period, and the bloom tolerates temperatures as low as 18 degrees F, making this shrub a perfect homesteading garden addition.File:Cornus mas Sturm40.jpg

The fruit has been used for 7,000 years as a food crop in ancient Greece. Cornelian cherry is native to regions of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. While known primarily as an ornamental plant in the U.S., its cherry-like fruits have been part of a healthy diet in some parts of the world for thousands of years. In its native range, it is still used as a fresh fruit and is popular as a fruit drink. Cornelian cherry was grown in monastery gardens of continental Europe through the Middle Ages and was introduced to Britain about the sixteenth century. The great herbalist Gerard wrote in 1597 that “there be sundry  trees of the cornel in the gardens of such as love rare  and dainty plants, whereof I have a tree or two in my garden.

Contrary to its name, the cornelian cherry is part of the dogwood family. The word “cornelian” refers to the similarity in color of the fruit to cornelian (or carnelian) quartz, which  has a waxy luster and a deep red, reddish-white, or flesh red color (Carnis is Latin for flesh). The fruit has an elongated pit that is hard to remove because it adheres tightly to the edible flesh. And due to the extended flowering period, its fruit also ripens over an extended period of time, requiring multiple harvests. Being similar to a tart cherry, its uses include syrup, jelly, jams, pies, wine and baked goods. Unfortunately, this historically significant fruit has lost favor in the industrialized age because it does not lend itself well to mass production and processing.

Cornelian cherry mead

My cornelian cherry mead, made with washed comb honey must:

The cut off cappings from extracting liquid honey from a backyard hive. The frame of honey comb is uncapped using a sharp bread-type knife, to then extract the liquid honey from the cells using a centrifugal honey extractor.

For this honey must I did not use extracted honey, and only washed the cappings in warm water to dissolve the surplus honey sugars. The wax remnants are then removed, squeezed, and stored for future melting into bars of beeswax.

Initially the honey must was too strong – the egg floated sideways – thus more lukewarm water was added. Add slowly, and mix well, to bring down the density in increments, until the egg floats pointy up.

Cornelian cherries on the bush. I picked the really ripe ones, from dried on the vine “raisins” to mushy brown, to purplish red. As cornelian cherry ripens in stages, which is perfect from a homesteading point of view as it gives time to harvest and enjoy, I only picked the ripe and left the rest for another day. I ended going back three times, the first two amounts for this mead, and the second amount for a cider mixture.

I used a hand mill to puree the fruit to make sure the fruit and the honey must would combine well. While in this way the seeds and skins are separated from the puree (this fruit does not make juice, instead it makes a puree of the consistency of apple sauce), I opted to add the skins (with seeds) back to the puree, and must, as I wanted to make use of the endemic yeast living on the fruit skins instead of pitching a commercial yeast strain. I find wild yeasts on fruit skins to work well to ferment that type of fruit and often give a milder, more flavorful mead than made with a more robust single strain commercial yeast. All in all I ended up with over a gallon of puree (5 liters according to the side of the fermenting bucket) with about 4 gallons of honey must.

The fruit & honey must, ready for fermentation. It was slightly bubbly in a few hours, and started to really bubble 2 days later. And it smells awesome! As I found a reference cornelian cherry was often combined with apple cider to ferment into a fruity hard cider, I collected another gallon or so to freeze for when the apples are ready to be pressed.


Cornelian cherries seems to have an endemic souring organism living on the skin. When fermented without sterilization, and no honey, it will sour quite nicely. When I intend to make a sour ale, I will add some cornelian cherry skins to purposefully infect the wort. With honey, the antibacterial effect of the honey is enough to curb any infection.