When it comes to looking good throughout the year, the dogwood family (the genus Cornus) has it all sewn up. From winter bark to summer berries, and from spring flowers to vibrant fall foliage, these diverse shrubs and small trees don’t seem to know the meaning of a bad season. And no matter where you live, there’s sure to be a dogwood that would be happy to put down roots in your garden.
Leaving out the bunchberry and its relatives (C. canadensis, comprising a small number of groundcovers), the numerous species of this genus may be divided into four distinct groups, according to their habit and general characteristics.
Bracts not blooms
Although gardeners talk about their flowers, dogwoods are similar to poinsettias in that their petals are actually bracts, whose function is to protect the true flowers in winter and attract pollinators in spring. The true flowers are insignificant (1 to 2 mm), and huddled together in the centre of the bloom where the bracts meet.
The Cornus alba group
The C. alba group includes tatarian dogwood (C. alba), bloodtwig dogwood (C. sanguinea) and red osier dogwood (C. sericea). These are typically multi-stemmed, suckering shrubs primarily grown for their colourful winter bark. Vigorous young canes show the best colour, so old canes may be pruned out at the base annually in late fall. Alternatively, established plants may be coppiced (cut down to ground level) each spring. Average garden soil; full sun to part shade.
C. alba ‘Sibirica’
Height and spread: 2 x 1.5 m
Small, white flowers in spring are followed by bluish white berries; red fall foliage; vivid coral red winter bark. Tolerates wet soils. There’s also a popular variegated form (C. a. ‘Sibirica Variegata’). Zone 2
C. sanguinea ‘Winter Beauty’
Height and spread: 1.5 to 2 m x 1 to 2 m
This European native won the Best Novelty Plant award at Flora Nova in 1987. Reddish orange stems, occasionally tinged with yellow; small, cream-coloured blooms in late spring followed by black berries; red fall foliage. Tolerates alkaline soils. Does not grow as robustly or sucker as profusely as its cousin, C. s. ‘Midwinter Fire’. Zone 4
C. sericea ‘Cardinal’
Height and spread: 3 x 4 m
A native dogwood well suited to mass plantings. Creamy white flowers in late spring are followed by white berries; red fall foliage; cardinal red stems in winter. Particularly striking when paired with its yellow-stemmed sibling, C. s. ‘Flaviramea’. Needs room. Zone 2