Plant Profiles: Cornus
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Upright, multistemmed, twiggy spreading shrub, 4 to 8 feet
Average to wet soil; twig color is better in full sun
For best stem color; once plants are 3 years old, cut stems back to ground every spring
Luscious mahogany. Riotous coral. Shimmering lemon-lime. 'Tis the season, all right, for every conceivable multicolored wrapping. You just have to look under the right tree.
Here's a tip: Check out the various species of shrubby dogwoods, those multi-stemmed cousins of the well-known spring bloomer. These unlikely treasures (with a penchant for soil that's anywhere from evenly moist to sodden) spend most of the year as highly adaptable and serviceable fillers.
As digits drop, though, and days shorten, these unassuming frogs become princes of fortune, their formerly drab stems alchemized by temperature and time. Olive-green becomes chartreuse-yellow, and muddy red turns jeweled pink; masses of nondescript foliage become thickets of colorful, crisscrossed pick-up sticks.
One of the most astonishing plantings of shrubby dogwood I've ever seen is at a private garden near Seattle, where the pondside reflection of several species is so kaleidoscopic the colors seem to sweeten the air. Even more surprising is how easy it is to make an impact with these utilitarian plants; all it takes is sun, absence of drought, and thoughtful placement to capitalize on their icy winter glaze.
Let's say you have an evergreen hedge backing up a perennial border, or a dark green house surrounded by mixed shrubs. No doubt both looked fine in summer, but they probably seem terminally monochromatic now. To stir things up, plant a couple of variegated Cornus stolonifera 'Silver and Gold', either integrating them into the existing plantings or replacing a couple of generic evergreen balls. The reward will be instantaneous -- not to mention year-round -- with neon yellow stems in winter and creamy white, variegated leaves the rest of the year.
Or perhaps you live in an off-white house, now bereft of colorful foliage (ah, those Japanese maples -- can't you still feel their heat?). If the tree at your picture window is limbed up far enough, tuck three C. sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire' beneath (just be sure they have plenty of sun). These beauties have electric stems that glow red, orange, and yellow -- the rival of any maple -- and need only be cut back to the ground in spring to ensure next winter's show.
If you're lucky enough to have a natural pond or stream on your property and wouldn't mind some fast-growing, colonizing shrubs, mass a few flavors, selected for their winter color along its banks (winter's also the best time of year to choose shrubby dogwoods). Consider a juxtaposition of bright reds and yellows, such as C. alba 'Cardinal' and C. stolonifera "Flaviramea', then throw in a few plumes of smoky-purple arctic willow, Salix purpurea 'Nana'.
The last word in shrubby dogwood is for the avant-gardeners among you (who need not be told the trend is black): C. alba 'Kesselringii'. More a sumptuous, moody purple than a true black (also an apt description of its emerging foliage when grown in full sun), this cultivar demands the right setting to strut its stuff, whether lit from beneath with orange Carex, from behind by C. stolonifera 'Silver and Gold', or from above with manna from heaven, its black limbs frosted in snow.