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Top dogwoods for gardens

Top dogwoods for gardens

Cornus kousa ‘Miss Satomi’. Photo: John Campbell/

Sarah Morgan finds out which Cornus are worth growing

Cornus, also known as dogwoods, are an enticing group of plants that are so varied they don’t look like they belong in the same genus.

There are many cultivars that make wonderful small trees, and others that work well as groundcover. They’re also widely grown for their winter stem colour, created by regularly cutting back hard. The ones garden designers most covet, however, have conspicuous floral bracts, with white or pink blooms. With such an array available, it can be difficult to choose the right one for you, so we asked an expert grower and a top garden designer to give us their top picks.

The specialist’s choice:

Karan Junker, of Junker’s Nursery, recommends the June-flowering C. kousa from Japan and China as the best suited to our climate, and the least fussy about soil. “With C. kousa you can get either a layered or ascending habit,” she explains. “The layered are more graceful and make finer specimen trees. My favourite is C. kousa ‘All Summer’, which, like the majority, has a long flowering period, good autumn colour and fruits freely. It grows to 3-5m, so I consider it to be middle-sized, but you can get bigger or smaller ones, such as C. kousa var. chinensis ‘Wisley Queen’ AGM, for different sites"

For a smaller urban garden:

"I’d go for the more upright habit such as C. kousa ‘Cherokee’, as they don’t have such a big span.”

For something distinctive:

Karan singles out C. kousa ‘Greensleeves’. “It has the biggest bracts I’ve seen on any Cornus, like handkerchiefs, which, unusually, stay green-tinged."

For autumn colour:

“I’d choose the bright-orange leaves of C. kousa ‘Teutonia’, as most of the others have dark and reserved autumn foliage.”

For a specimen tree:

C. controversa should be viewed from all sides, as its tiered branches have such an architectural presence, which is invaluable for an uncluttered minimalist planting,” comments Karan. “I’m not a big fan of variegation on Cornus, so I’d recommend C. controversa ‘Alaska’. It’s compact with much narrower plain-green leaves, making it a distinctive plant with a light feel, well suited to a smaller city garden.”

A standalone specimen:

C. alternifolia is more shrubby but easier to establish than C. controversa. “For a subtle variegation I like C. alternifolia ‘Silver Giant’. It’s brilliant for joining an ornamental garden to a more natural area.”

For stem colour:

Designer Annabel Downs FSGD loves the warmth of C. alba ‘Sibirica’ AGM. “It’s lovely grown against water in a little group of three or four, and I’ve planted it successfully glowering alongside red-stemmed willow. In summer, it has plain green leaves, which I like. Not everything should be all-singing, all-dancing the whole year round, as it gives the eye time to look at other things.” It’s worth remembering that many coppiced dogwoods grow into ever-expanding clumps, so for smaller gardens, choose less vigorous types such as C. sericea ‘Kelseyi’, recommended by Annabel, or cultivars of C. sanguinea. A top winter combination is the hot stems of Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ with brilliant white briars of Rubus cockburnianus and silvery Salix hastata catkins. Colourful winter-stem dogwoods are highly adaptable even to damp soils. They will grow in shade if the soil is not dry, but to get the best coloured stems they should be grown in full sun.

Most underrated:

Annabel believes C. mas, known as the Cornelian cherry, is greatly underused. “It makes such a good rural plant, with a subtlety that melds into the countryside. I also like it grown in urban gardens, hanging over walls with cheerful yellow flowers in February. It would make a fine hedge and is especially useful for difficult soils.” Both C. mas and C. kousa produce an edible fruit too, which apparently tastes a bit like a lychee – fun for those with children.

For a small tree:

Annabel recommends C. kousa ‘China Girl’. “I’ve used it in London and it has proved to have a graceful presence way beyond its flowering period. It’s hard to find beautiful solitary trees, but I love this one’s delicately uplifted branches and buds. I also plant differently around and underneath them, as you need to give them space to breathe. I’ve used them on sites with flats or offices above, as the bracts are on the top of the trees, so it’s nice for people to look down on them.”

For groundcover:

Annabel also thinks C. canadensis should be much more widely planted as creeping groundcover. “The white star-shaped flowers at ground level look stunning, and it does very well in dappled woodland; it just needs acid soil.” C. canadensis thrives in shade; it dies down in winter but grows again in spring.

Cornus mas. Photo: Burncoose Nurseries

Where to see & buy:

Burcoose Nurseries: A huge range of trees and shrubs including 45 varieties of Cornus available online. Gwennap, Redruth, Cornwall TR16 6BJ Tel: 01209 860316

Junker’s Nursery: Specialist grower with a good range of C. kousa varieties from 3L pots up to 4m specimens, available by mail order. Higher Cobhay, Milverton, Somerset TA4 1NJ Tel: 01823 400075

Newby Hall & Gardens: A National Collection Holder of Cornus grown by plantsman Robin Compton VMH. Ripon, North Yorkshire HG4 5AE Tel: 0845 450 4068

Sir Harold Hillier Gardens: Holds a National Collection of more than 200 different Cornus. Jermyns Lane, Romsey SO51 0QA Tel: 01794 369317

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