Japanese Dogwood

When I moved to Exeter, one of the first things I did was to plant a tree. Given what I know now, I’d have chosen a fruiting native tree, but at the time I was looking for something that largely kept its leaves year-round, and produced an interesting show. It was August/September 2003, not long after the heatwave that produced record temperatures, so the ground was rock hard and I struggled to dig a hole. I didn’t think it would be large enough, or that my tree would survive before its roots could break through the impacted Heavitree clay soil. But it did, and it has thrived. The next spring it produced its first flowers and showy bracts, and after seven or so years, it started to fruit. This year it’s gone ‘berserk’ and many of my neighbours have remarked on it… Which has led me to take more notice of it too. So this is for all of us.

Plant profile

Species: Cornus kousa
Subspecies/variety/cultivar: not known
Common names: kousa, kousa dogwood, Chinese dogwood, Korean dogwood, Japanese dogwood

Small deciduous tree
Height: 8-12 m
Spread: 4-5 m
Vase-shaped when young, maturing into round shape with horizontal branching

Bark: camouflage-pattern tan and brown; peels low down when older
Leaves: opposite, simple; length 4-10 cm, width 2-3 cm; young leaves are present year-round; green turning reddish purple in autumn
Flowers: inconspicuous yellow-green cluster, pointing upwards and surrounded by four white bracts; May-June after the leaves are out
Fruit: globose compound berry of 20-40 carpels; diameter 2-4 cm; green, ripening to yellow to amber to pink-red from August to October

Not to be confused with the dogwood that is planted for its showy red or yellow stems.

Growing and propagating

Cornus Kousa can withstand temperatures as low as -25 °C, so can grow anywhere in the UK. They prefer full sun and will tolerate partial shade. They like acid, humus-rich, moist and well drained soils, so I suppose mine isn’t so bad after all.

The tree is self fertile, and can be propagated by seeds or by cuttings, although the success rate on cuttings is very low. To save the seeds, rinse them, put them in a bag with moist sand, soil or compost, and store them at 2-4 °C for at least 12 weeks, that is, in the fridge over winter. When the weather warms again, the seeds can be planted in the ground. Seems worth a go.

Using the wood

The wood is hard and white, and was said to have been used in making stiff butchers’ skewers. Another name for the tree was skewer-wood, but it also suggests one possible derivation of the name dogwood: dog is perhaps a corruption of dag, to pierce or stab, hence also dagger.

Another possibility is that the fruit of the common dogwood Cornus sanguine was called dogberry from 1550s, from the use of dog to mean cheap or inferior, ie fit for a dog. Shakespeare used the name for his bumbling malaprop-spouting nightwatchman in Much Ado About Nothing.

Picking dogberries

Urban foraging is a marvellous thing. On just two of my local roads there are blackberries, cherries, rowanberries, japonica quinces, darwin’s barberries, rosehips. And not much further away there are also hazelnuts, elderflower and -berries, nettles, ramsons, apples, plums, sloes, etc etc. If the source is in someone’s garden you should ask permission, especially if you are over the scrumping age of say 11, but everyone is invited this year to try my dogberries.

The fruit start out tiny and green. They start ripening in August, and continues until October or November. Not all at once – you can still see some green fists in November alongside the ripe berries. Unripe fruit have a peach-coloured skin and firm white pulp. When ripe they are a lovely deep pink colour, with orange-yellow flesh, and have a slightly soft consistency when lightly squeezed. They can then be picked with a gentle pull, or will then either fall off the tree and make a right mess. Maybe if one year I want a lot for pulping, I could put a sheet down and shake the tree.

There are many varieties of tree, and there’s a big difference in flavour between their fruits. Some can be quite bitter, so it’s worth trying before picking loads for jam. The flavour wasn’t on my radar when I bought the tree. It should have been.

Notes re some of the recipes below:

  • In US recipes, one cup is 240ml
  • Cornel is another name for the fruit of the dogwood tree

Eating dogberries

Fresh fresh fresh

Ripe dogberries are edible and usually eaten raw, straight off the tree. Cooking apparently adversely affects the flavour. The fruits are highly perishable, so immediate consumption is recommended for the best quality and flavour.

The skins are coarse, with a texture described as gritty, grainy, mealy and unpleasant, and a flavour that is bitter or astringent. So although they are technically edible, they are usually discarded. Each fruit has a few small seeds, probably also edible but hard and usually not eaten. They are well-attached to the pulp, and are not easy to separate, however, so…

To eat a dogberry, simply remove the stem, tear a hole in the skin, and squeeze the pulp into your mouth. Separate out the seeds before swallowing, and spit them somewhere hygienic!

The texture has been variously described as soft and creamy, slippery and custard-like, similar to a pear or apricot, like a ripe persimmon, reminiscent of a mango.

The flavour might be sweet and creamy, like the Custard Apple (Cherimoya) from India, similar to papaya, an acquired taste, like a cross between a mango and pumpkin, like a melon of some kind, very sweet with slight apple and a hint of mango, similar to a ripe persimmon, like an apple, bitter, like pawpaws, unique and reminiscent of stone fruit, mango and persimmon.

Anyone know what a persimmon tastes like?

Nutritional and medicinal properties

I have eaten a few dogberries raw… and although I would say mine are on the bitter end of the scale, I survived to write this blog! In fact, they seem to be pretty health-giving.

They are described as containing sugars, a fat content similar to avocados, vitamin C, calcium, and significant amounts of the antioxidants anthocyanins. Research is underway to determine whether these have any benefit after consumption and digestion.

The plant contains tannins, which means it is astringent and an agent against diarrhoea. Uses in traditional medicine include: anti-inflammatory, treating fever, cleansing the liver, staunching blood flow from wounds, improving energy levels.

Always consult an expert before trying any of these.

Using the pulp

It’s not possible to use the fruit whole by removing the skin and seeds, as it turns to pulp. Most websites recommend using a food or fruit mill to process the fruit. It produces a reasonable amount of pulp per fruit, which can be used in many ways or frozen for later use.

Tips on processing the fruit to extract the pulp for recipes

Some suggestions for using the pulp that I’ve seen as I scrolled:

  • Use as a fresh condiment on grilled chicken
  • Use as a base for a salad dressing
  • Mix into smoothies
  • Swirl into yogurt
  • Add to a basic vanilla ice cream maker recipe
  • Use as a 1:1 substitute in any persimmon or pawpaw recipe
  • Utilize in baked goods such as bread, muffins, and pies, eg alter a banana bread recipe

Kousa Dogwood Berry Muffins

Kousa Dogwood Frozen Yogurt
http://www.edibleterrain.com/foraging-blog/2015/9/9/kousa-dogwood-fruits [link no longer works – if you invent your own recipe, let me know!]

Kousa Dogwood Pudding Cake

Jelly/jam recipes

My usual technique with jam is to take a couple of pounds of fruit pulp out of the freezer, nuke it a few minutes, push it through a sieve and/or muslin, weigh the result and add the same amount of sugar (or maybe a bit less depending on the sweetness of the fruit) and a bit of lemon (if the fruit is low in pectin), nuke it some more until it wrinkles when tested on a plate that’s been in the freezer, pour it into two or three jam jars that have been sterilised in the oven, and label with masking tape.

But I haven’t tried it with dogberries yet, so here are some actual recipes.

Dogwood Jelly – simple recipe

Chai Kousa (Dogwood) Jam – includes some additional spices

Kousa Dogwood Fruit jam – another one with spices

Wine recipes

Dogwood Wine

General procedure for fruit wine

Eating the leaves

Apparently, the young leaves can also be cooked and eaten. I have seen a reference to boiling. But none of the references I found seemed to have tried it, and nor have I, so be wary.