Dogwoods splash eye-popping color onto winter landscapes

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Native and European ornamental multi-stemmed dogwood, also called creek dogwood, offers both four-season glory and wildlife habitat.

With flamboyantly colored bare stems, they are at their most showy in winter when color is at a minimum, allowing them to really “step out” into the landscape. These stems appear illuminated, especially under dark gloomy skies or during rain.

Summer brings luxuriant green or wildly variegated leaves topped by elegant white, horizontally held flowers that pollinators love. Late summer sees the non-flagging plants decorated with white berries that are favorites of birds and flower arrangers alike. The fall leaves of many species and varieties glow with deep ruby or grape tones.

Tolerant of many site conditions, these dogwoods are very rewarding plants for your garden and are too little known and used. Our native creek dogwoods (Cornus sericea), are deciduous, multi-stemmed, North American native shrubs that grow beside streams and other waterways. They are widely adapted and distributed and are found throughout the western states, across the northern portion of the U.S. and across Canada.

The western states’ creek dogwood is named Cornus sericea sssp. sericea. They can form reddish dense thickets in shade situations or a fringe of leafy growth and brilliant red stems in bright sunlight. The European species come from similar environments. Tolerant of intense heat and cold, periodic inundation and some drought, these dogwoods have application in a variety of garden situations.

There are a number of outstanding selections and cultivars as well as locally selected native species. Please note they differ markedly in growth structure and culture than the tree-type dogwoods such as Cornus florida and Cornus kousa.

In wild areas, the native species form a red haze along damp, dark roads or a head-turning exclamation of crimson on sunny banks along rivers. Creek dogwood, ornamental selections, and cultivars are even more brilliant and pronounced in hue. Some have flaming crimson, fluorescent yellow or glowing salmon orange stems that make for striking landscape features. They can be displayed in your garden as single specimens, in groups or used as a hedge. When planting as a group, for the best display make sure to leave some space in between individual plants.

Although they are adapted to growth along waterways, they are far more tolerant of drought than tree dogwoods such as Cornus florida and Cornus kousa. Regular garden watering schedules are enough to keep them happy. They are also good candidates for rain gardens since they tolerate flooding and poor drainage.

Creek dogwoods thrive on deep soils with fairly high fertility and benefit from mulch. Many can be grown in shade as well as sun. Highly adapted, they thrive in the cooler climates of our area as well as hot-summer climates like Sacramento, and in heat and cold like eastern Oregon or Washington.

Creek or ornamental dogwoods stems or shoots are excellent for floral arrangements both in winter and summer. In summer, the variegated varieties offer good filler for arrangements. When berries are present, these add another dimension to bouquets. In winter, those with colorful stems make striking, long-lasting features in clear glass vases.

Creek dogwoods require specific pruning to bring out their best attributes. Much of the time they are mistakenly made into individual little balls or large rectangles. The vibrant stem color comes from new growth. The old wood becomes brown and unappealing, declines in vigor over three to four years and will die after about five years. As creekside or riparian plants, they are adapted to breakage by periodic flooding and so readily re-sprout from the base or stumps. They thrive with renewing growth. To accomplish this, some people prune the whole plant down to about 6 inches every three to four years, effectively pollarding it. Other people thin out 1/4 to 1/3 of the oldest growth every year to constantly renew plants. Stems can then be thinned to open up the plant.

Thinning cuts are much better than heading cuts for this type of dogwood and generate a much more attractive, healthy plant. Some species sucker but are not considered rampant spreaders. This type does need management. The best time to prune is in early spring just before they break dormancy.

As well as locally-adapted wild species, there a number of exuberant cultivars and selections available at nurseries.

Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’ has fiery red stems that grow to about 6 feet tall and 6 feet wide. It is grown for its striking winter color, which ignites the landscape. It is effective as a single specimen, grouped or is traffic-stopping when planted in a row. There are other similar cultivars, some much smaller.

Cornus sanguinea “Midwinter Fire” Coral twig dogwood is at its best in the winter with shocking salmon-pink and orange stems. Fall leaf color is a pink-peach. Cornus sanguinea is native to Europe but grows in the same conditions as our native dogwood. Both single specimens or a line of them create an almost unworldly salmon glow. This selection can grow to about 6 feet tall but is often much smaller. As stem color is contained in new growth, cut 25 percent of the oldest shoots to the ground each year.

Cornus sericea “Flaviramea” Yellow twig dogwood is an interesting cultivar. It has sulfur-yellow stems that sucker and form small thickets over time. These can be removed as needed. It grows to about 6 feet tall. For best effect and to manage them, 25 percent of the oldest shoots should be removed each year. Someone described the feeling of sitting in a thicket of them in winter as Medieval. A robust plant is a sight to behold. There is a variegated version called C. flaviramea ‘White Gold.’

Cornus sericea ‘Hedgerows Gold’ is a showy, highly variegated selection of a wild dogwood found by Hedgerow Nursery on the Deschutes River in Oregon. It tends to grow in a more tree-like form than other creek dogwoods and is about 5 to 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Leaves have a wide irregular band of a glowing gold — in beautiful contrast to the bright green leaf centers. Red twigs set the whole ensemble off. C. Hedgerows Gold is wonderful as a specimen plant, or if you are daring, try a whole line of them. This selection does benefit from some afternoon shade in warm areas, like the east side of a house. The stems seem to have longer viability than most. Prune as they decline.

Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ is a very upright multi-stemmed dogwood with striking white variegation on leaf margins. It is an elegant plant about 4 to 6 feet tall that looks good in formal gardens. It appreciates afternoon shade in warm climates or full sun in cooler climates. It looks great as a single specimen, in groupings or in a line. White flowers such as Japanese anemones and ferns look wonderful with it.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: katebfrey@gmail.com, freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool

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