Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Backyard Foraging: Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Not only are the fruits of the dogwood edible, but they also contain a variety of beneficial antioxidants and anthocyanins. Berries from dogwood trees may also be useful for treating a variety of ailments, including tumors.

Photo credit: Henry Hartley

Cornus florida, also known as the flowering dogwood, is a small tree native to eastern North America that is best known for its white or pink floral displays in April and May. The flowering dogwood blooms just before leaving out in the spring and produces small fruits that ripen in September and October.

All species of dogwood in the genus Cornus produce edible fruits (also called cornels or Cornelian cherries), and some are reportedly more palatable than others. While most North American dogwoods produce clusters of small berries with little taste, some Asian species yield fruit of a more respectable size and are more pleasant to eat. The fruits C. mas, for example, are much larger and are described as tasting similar to cranberries or sour cherries. In C. kousa, the fruits from multiple flowers fuse into a single large fruit that resembles a raspberry and can reach up to 1.5 inches (4 cm.) in diameter. Their flavor has been described more akin to apples or apricots. 

Fruits of Cornus florida (left), C. mas (center), and C. kousa (right)
Photo credits: 
WillCookabout-garden.com, and T. Abe Lloyd

In general, dogwood fruits contain high levels of vitamin C, vitamin D, and beta-carotine (a precursor to vitamin A), as well as antioxidants and anthocyanins. One study found that Cornus fruits contained 8 to 10 times as many antioxidants as other common fruits, and another reported higher levels of dietary minerals

In addition to nutrients, studies have shown that several compounds found in dogwood fruits have valuable medicinal properties. All Cornus species contain various amounts of the glucoside cornic acid (or cornin) and the alkaloid cornine, which possess mild narcotic and analgesic properties. These chemicals are likely responsible for the Native American use of dogwoods as a pain reliever and in smoking blends.

Chemical components and extracts from Cornus fruits have demonstrated benefits for blood pressure and heart health, vascular inflammation, brain function, diabetes, and as anti-tumor agents (see links below). Some components are also known to possess antimicrobial properties, and it is often reported that the alkaloid cornine was used as an alternative to quinine for treatment of malaria by Native Americans. Even the name “dogwood” may have been derived from the use of dogwood bark in the treatment of dogs with mange, which is caused by a parasitic mite.

Native Americans used most, if not all, dogwood species. In some groups some groups, dogwoods were one of the most utilized plants, and two species (C. canadensis and C. sericea) seem to have been used especially frequently. Traditionally, Native Americans used the leaves and bark as a general tonic and for the treatment of pain relief. There are some reports of bark of being used for eye maladies and as an anticonvulsant. Interestingly, there may be some merit in this, given that another compound found in dogwoods, gallic acid, has been identified as a carbonic anhydrase inhibitor, a class of pharmaceuticals with applications including glaucoma and epilepsy. The leaves and bark were also included in kinnikinnik recipes.

Cornus florida, Photo credit: McKinley & Associates 

Asian dogwoods also have a long history of use. C. mas is used against colds and flues in Eastern Europe, and is used in traditional Chinese medicine to promote kidney health. Both C. mas and another species C. officianalis are both used to treat reproductive disorders. C. officianalisi also imparts protective effects to auditory cells, prevents acetaminophen-induced liver damage, promotes nerve and blood vessel growth, and is used in the treatment of diabetes.

At worst, Cornus fruits have been described as mealy and tasteless, but the skin and seeds also encourage some processing before eating. Given their antioxidant and disease-fighting properties, I think that they are probably worth it. Many authors suggest mashing the fruit and incorporating the pulp or juice into jams with other fruits. The juice, however, could also be mixed with other juices or teas, and the pulp could be mixed with other fruits for making fruit leather. I'll try this and report back in the Fall. 

For more reading, check out the Plants for a Future websiteFloridataand of course,… Wikipedia. 

Here are also a few links to some more technical articles about Cornus:

You can read this article and more on my other blog Backyard Foraging.

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