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Garden Talk

Clusters of yellow Chinese cornel dogwood flowers opening along an otherwise bare branch

Botanical name: Cornus officinalis
Common name: Chinese cornel dogwood, Chinese cornelian cherry
Family name: Cornaceae (Dogwood family)
Native range: China
Location in Duke Gardens: Culberson Asiatic Arboretum
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5-8

By Katherine Hale

Marketing & Communications Assistant

multi-trunked Chinese cornel dogwood specimen tree with gray bark and yellow flowers

Our native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is the best known of the many dogwood species in our area, but the genus contains many other notable species across the northern hemisphere that do well when planted in the Southeastern United States. One of these is the Chinese cornel dogwood (C. officinalis), which is especially notable in February for its bright yellow clusters of early-blooming flowers. These lack the white “petals” (actually modified leaves known as bracts) of the flowering dogwood, but they are distinctive in spite of their small size when the plant is in full bloom.

In addition to their showy flowers, many species of dogwood have bright red edible fruits that superficially resemble cherries, which is one reason this species is also known as the “Chinese cornelian cherry” to distinguish it from the plain old “cornelian cherry,” C. mas, which is native to Europe. The fruits were also an ingredient in traditional medicine, hence the epithet “officinalis” in their scientific name—a term used by early European taxonomists for any plant commonly used or sold by apothecaries at the time.

“Cornel” and “cornelian” are alternate terms for dogwoods derived from the name of the genus, which is Latin for “horn.” This may sound like a non sequitur, but there’s likely an etymological pun involved: the Latin term is derived from ancient Greek keras, which is similar to the word for “cherry” (keratos), hence the repeated conflation of the two. The resemblance of dogwood fruit to a cherry is also why “cornelian” was sometimes used in older texts as an alternate spelling for “carnelian,” a cherry-colored semi-precious form of the mineral chalcedony.

If you’ve never encountered the Chinese cornel dogwood here at Duke Gardens, now is the perfect time to check it out! Look for it adjacent to the Maple Gate entrance to the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, just off the gravel path bordering the Welch Woodland Garden and the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden (see garden map here).

More Garden Talk Highlights

Photos from top: Chinese cornel dogwood flowers in bloom, by William Hanley; two images of the Chinese cornel dogwood in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, by Orla Swift.

a tree with small yellow flowers in the foreground, with a path leading to a garden gateway structure in soft focus in the distance