Not all dogwoods are alike. One species, Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), actually has yellow flowers and doesn’t much look like the familiar dogwood of the eastern woodlands. But this small tree is tough and long-lived and suitable for any landscape location where you want something to stand out and shine as winter makes its last assault and we eagerly anticipate spring.

Cornelian cherry

Cornelian cherry blooms before most other plants in spring.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Cornelian cherry flowers

The yellow blooms of Cornelian cherry last for about three weeks.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Cornelian cherry bark

The exfoliating bark of Cornelian cherry is an interesting wintertime asset.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Cornelian cherry grows as a small, low-branched, multi-trunked tree reaching 20 feet tall with a like spread. Its bark is a peeling, gray-brown, creating an appealing wintertime display. The leaves are like our native dogwood in shape, but they’re a bit smaller and prone to be cupped. Fall color is usually modest.

The showy portion of our native dogwood is a modified leaf – called a bract – with the true flowers clustered in the center. Cornelian cherry lacks this showy bract. It retains a yellowish set of bud scales, but the display is mainly from the dense cluster of yellow flowers. (These individual blooms are small, but their cluster forms are as large as a nickel.) They’re one of the earliest tree flowers to bloom in spring, making their appearance about two weeks before early deciduous magnolias. And because it’s so cool in February, these flowers remain attractive for about three weeks! Lacking competition, they always make a nice display in the drab, late winter landscape.

The tree’s fruit is a bright red, oblong, cherry-shaped drupe about 3/4 of an inch long and contains a single seed. Though edible, you’ve got to be pretty hungry (or a bird) to properly appreciate this fruit’s insipid flavor.

Cornelian cherry is hardy throughout zones 4 to 8 and makes a nice small specimen tree. Use it where its early spring blooms can be enjoyed up close. It does best in a fertile, well-drained soil but is less picky about planting location and soils than our native dogwood. It grows well in full sun or light shade and has considerable drought tolerance once it’s established in the landscape. It has no serious insect or disease problems.

With its early bloom time and attractive qualities, Cornelian cherry is a great easy-to-grow tree for the landscape. Gardeners looking for a small, tough tree with an early spring draw should consider this little gem.