With the arrival of spring come the first tentative blossoms. For trees, the earliest flowers come from the red maples and Cornelian cherries. These early bloomers begin their show about two weeks before the always-early deciduous magnolias.

Cornus mas

Cornelian cherry blooms early, so locate it where the flowers can be inspected and enjoyed up close.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Despite what its name may suggest, Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) isn’t a cherry tree at all – it’s a type of dogwood. Though not especially common, it’s easy to grow and makes a good show, given that competition is scarce in February and early March. It’s native to southern Europe and central Asia.

All plants have a plethora of names associated with them, and tracing back the derivation of each is an interesting exercise when the weather is too foul for gardening. With regard to Cornelian cherry, the name “cornelian” is an adaptation of “cornel,” the name used by the Romans for this tree. The Latin word “cornu” describes hard and tough objects, such as the horn of a goat. From this root word we get “cornea” (due to the toughness of the lens of the eye), “cornet” (the shape of the instrument resembles the trunk shape) and Cornus, which Carolus Linnaeus, founder of the “binomial system of nomenclature,” used when he established the genus name for dogwoods.

The species epitaph “mas” is a Latin prefix meaning “strong,” a reference to the hard, tough wood of the species. This prefix is used in the word “masculine;” in fact, in some writings, Linnaeus used the Latin name Cornus mascula for Cornelian cherry, but he used Cornus mas first, so that’s the official name.

The etymology of the word “dogwood,” used for our native Cornus florida, is not completely clear. One possibility is that it comes from the Middle English word “dag,” referring to a wooden spit made from a shrubby dogwood native to England. These spits were sold on the streets for cooking meat over an open flame.

The word “dag” is itself an adaptation of “daggere,” or “dagger,” as we now know it. The Cornelian cherry was recognized for its hard, tough wood and was used for making pikes and maybe wooden daggers. Following this line of reasoning, dogwood is a corruption of the word “dag wood.”

The other explanation for the name is that leaves of the English Cornus were used to make a concoction to treat dog mange. A recipe is found in a 17th century herbal, so it’s possible that early English colonists saw the similarity between the plants and adapted the name. (There’s no evidence that the leaves of Cornus florida were ever used as a mange treatment.)

Dogwoods remain a diverse lot of small-flowering trees that add beauty to the spring landscape. And perhaps now when you admire the early yellow blooms of Cornelian cherry this season, you’ll look at the tree with a whole new meaning.