Two shrubs that create a bit of drama for the spring

Foster’s Holly in Rankin Square Photos by Karen Lawrence

Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist

Dr. Bob Gilbert

Looking for some drama in your yard in early spring?  There is an uncommon dogwood Cornus mas with the common name Cornelian Cherry that fits that bill.  It is not a cherry (prunus).  This is another example of why scientific names are important.  What is unique is that it blooms at a time when there is not much else blooming.  If it bloomed in May or June it would hardly be noticeable. This is a large shrub or small tree that can reach 20 to 25 feet. You can create a tree by selective pruning off lower branches and confining growth to a single trunk.  I planted this tree, photographed by Karen Lawrence (photo below) 10 to 11 years ago in a friend’s yard. The yellow flowers, lasting up to three weeks, are similar to the yellow central bloom parts of our native dogwood Cornus florida.  Cornus mas does not have white petals or bracts like our native dogwood. Its cornelian-colored fruits, ripen in July, are edible and makes wonderful jellies and jams.  There are a number of cultivars based on different leaf patterns and sizes. 

About the only other shrub blooming at the same time is our native Spicebush Lindera benzoin. Its blooms are so small you only get a hint yellow.

Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas)

What I have found a little confusing is that mas is short for masculine. If this plant is a male it should not be producing fruit?  On close inspection.  I have found it does not have male anatomy but female ones.  Mas also means strong. All dogwoods have dense and very strong wood.  So, the species name mas is descriptive and appropriate.  Dogwoods got their common names from the claim that the fruits are edible but not tolerated for dogs.  Also, its wood was used for cooking skewers called dogs.

 I found this plant for sale at a local nursery.  It is easy to grow having no special requirements and is hardy from zones 4- 7-8.  It is native to Europe and Asia.  It is neither aggressive or invasive.  It does produce occasional suckers.  Again, what is unique about Cornus mas is that it blooms at a time when most plants are still dormant.  Plus, you can stump your friends and neighbors about its identification.  And Dirr states that “They are tough and adaptable and suffer few problems in the garden.”

Foster’s Holly on the Square

The back border along the alley of Rankin Square has a hedgerow of Foster’s Holly.  The genus name for holly is Ilex.  This holly produces plentiful bright red berries.  It has been a beautiful and popular selection for years.  It is a long lifespan.  It can be pollinated from other hollies.  Also, it can produce fruit without a male pollinator.

It is actually a cross between two different species of holly, Ilex cassine (Dahoon Holly) and Ilex opaca (our native American Holly)?  The cross was made by E. E. Foster of Bessemer, Ala., in the1950s.  Originally there were only five seedlings available labeled 1-5.  Numbers 2 and 3 have been the most popular.  Numbers 1 and 5 were discarded as being inferior.  The number 4 is a male not needed as Foster’s Holly can produce fruit by a process called parthecarpy from the Greek Parthenon meaning virgin and karpos meaning fruit.  The fruits produced do not have seeds.  Thus, this holly does not produce a lot of nuisance seedlings as does our native holly.  As an aside the plural for holly can be written or spoke either holly or hollies.  

Foster’s Holly can grow to 25 feet.  Its heavy berry production is an inherited characteristic from Ilex cassine.  Its scientific name is listed as Ilex x attenuata.  The x is a signal that it is an interspecies cross.  Attenuata means slender can be descriptive of its overall form or the shape of the dark evergreen leaves.

Foster’s Holly has become one of the most popular evergreens trees for landscapes purposes.  It is hardy from zones 6-9 and easily grown.  It does not need anything special.  In early spring its berries ripen and flocks of Cedar Waxwings and Robins strip the trees of their red fruit.  There is an old wives’ tale that birds wait for holly berries to ripen and ferment.  Reportedly they gorge themselves on the overly ripened fermented fruit and fall to the ground drunk.  After years of watching birds devour holly berries, I have never seen that happen.  I have wondered why birds never get fat?  It appears they can over eat without consequence.  Have you ever seen overweight Cedar Waxwings or Robins?  But then if there is a large feeding flock it is hard to tell if it is the same bird or others that keeps going back for more.  A good lesson is learned from Cedar Waxwings: They know when to stop eating before they hit the ground.

Dr. Bob Gilbert, co-founder of Smith Gilbert Garden in Kennesaw, Ga.

Karen Lawrence is a professional wildlife photographer from Franklin.