A celebration of colourful Cornus
To create a beautiful garden with year-round appeal it’s essential to pick the best plants, and few celebrate the seasons more than colourful cornus. Commonly called dogwoods, these reliable and hardy shrubs provide a luscious leafy backdrop to summer flowers. As a final fanfare their foliage is transformed into a rainbow of colours through autumn before fluttering away to reveal brilliant wand-like stems.
This seasonal transformation is just the start of a host of new planting partnerships that can be enjoyed right through until spring. During winter the brightly coloured stems of dogwoods catch sunlight to create dazzling displays. Small gardens might only have space for a single plant, so position it where the low piercing winter sunlight will shine through, catching stems in its spotlight.
No wonder varieties have been given names like ‘Winter Beauty’ and ‘Midwinter Fire’ as the intense rays of the sun really bring those fiery-coloured stems to life. Take a look at the whole range of shrubby dogwoods to discover varieties with different foliage and stem colour combinations from ‘Flaviramea’ with green leaves and golden-yellow stems, ‘Spaethii’ with variegated, yellow-edged green leaves and red stems, or the white margined leaves and red stems of ‘Elegantissima’.
In addition, many shrubby dogwoods also carry clusters of tiny flowers through summer. These are usually a creamy-white colour, and these often lead on to form dense heads of white berries in autumn.
Shrubby dogwoods grow well in almost any soil, even moist sites and heavy clay ground. They’ll grow best in a sunny position, but will tolerate some shade. Contrasting colours always work well when developing planting combinations, so consider planting groups of two or more dogwoods together.
Also try planting dogwoods in large patio containers to create seasonal displays with a difference, under-planting them with low winter bedding, leafy perennials and small shrubs.
There are dozens of plants to choose from as partners for dogwoods. Some can be planted behind them as a background to enhance the visibility of their stems, while others provide flowering companions through winter. Several low growing plants, like bergenia and heuchera, can be planted around clumps to carpet the ground, or underplant with early flowering bulbs like snowdrops, crocus and narcissus.
Cornus are a wide and varied family of shrubs and small trees, so if dogwoods take your fancy check out the rest of the family to discover other great garden performers like the Wedding Cake Tree (Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’) and flowering trees like Cornus kousa and ‘Venus’. Also look out for the Cornus mas, the Cornelian Cherry, which forms tiny clusters of yellow flowers on bare winter stems that turn into glossy-red cherry-like fruits later in summer.
Choose carefully and your garden displays really will become a celebration of colourful cornus.
Popular dogwood varieties for the garden
For summer foliage and winter stems:
Cornus alba varieties – such as ‘Elegantissima’, ‘Aurea’, ‘Spaethii’, and Siberian dogwood ‘Sibirica’
Cornus sericea varieties – such as Golden-twig dogwood ‘Flaviramea’ and dwarf Kelsey’s Gold
Cornus sanguinea varieties – such as ‘Midwinter Fire’ and ‘Winter Beauty’
Small trees with attractive flowers and foliage:
Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ (AGM)
Cornus kousa varieties like ‘Miss Satomi’ (AGM)
For winter flowers:
Cornus mas – dainty yellow flowers in winter, red fruits in late summer
Top tips for planning and planting
1. Where dogwoods are specifically being grown for their winter stems they’ll need annual pruning. This is simply done by cutting all stems down to their woody base close to ground level every spring. This encourages new stems to develop during the year, and it’s these you’ll enjoy the following winter.
2. If you fancy having a go at propagating your own dogwoods then try taking hardwood cuttings. Once leaves have fallen, lengths of stem can be prepared and inserted into slits in the ground filled with gritty sand. Heal in firmly and keep watered if conditions are dry. Cuttings should root over spring/summer and produce well rooted new plants by next autumn. They’re fun to take, so check online for full advice on taking hardwood cuttings.
Planting partners for Winter displays
- Ajuga varieties
- Bergenia varieties
- Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’
- Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius)
- Daphne mezereum
- Daphne odora
- Euphorbia varieties
- Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’
- Heuchera varieties
- Mahonia varieties (eg M. aquifolium, ‘Charity’, and more
- Ophiopogon ‘Nigresens’
- Phormium varieties eg ‘Sundowner’
- Rubus cockburnianus
- Skimmia varieties
- Snowdrops (Galanthus varieties)
- Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’
- Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’
- Winter Flowering Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum)
Source: HTA Plant of the Month
Photography: ©Adam Pasco