last updated 03/01/2018

Tree Cornus or "Flowering Dogwood"

This attractive group of plants is not as widely known and used in this country as they deservedly are in the States. We are often asked for the species florida, kousa or nuttallii as many people are unaware that there are so many better selected forms.

We do not grow the species for several reasons. They would generally be grown from seed; this naturally gives rise to variation. The plants can take several years to flower and then prove to be inferior. Imagine the disappointment!

By grafting, we can perpetuate a particular feature, whether flower size, growth habit and size, colour or foliage variegation. Over the years and around the world, many forms have been selected for these various attributes and named. Thus it is possible to plant something that you know will give the shape, size and overall effect that you want. So much more satisfactory than leaving it to chance.

Cornus nuttallii particularly is not a happy plant in the somewhat damp British climate and prone to sudden death when grown from seed. By grafting it onto a tougher rootstock we can not only make it easier to grow, but we can guarantee its flowering characteristics.

We graft all the forms of florida, nuttallii and kousa onto the geographical variant Cornus kousa var. chinensis. It is the hardiest and most vigorous, getting the young plants off to the best possible start. It also ensures that the plants will flower from a very early age.

In this manner, the plants are tolerant of a surprisingly wide range of conditions. As with so many plants, the ideal growing conditions would give adequate moisture when the plant is in leaf and actively growing, yet drain adequately well in winter when the plant is dormant and not able to use the extra water. The nuttalliis and floridas especially have large leaves which can lose water rapidly in the summer, so summer moisture is particularly important. However, they can be vulnerable to fungal problems in winter, so good air movement is valuable too. Interestingly, we have been told of plants doing well on chalk too. They are naturally shallow rooting, so a good surface mulch in the spring can be very welcome in drier sites. As with all mulching, do be careful to ensure that it is not banked up against the base of the trunk. Many of this group of Cornus are late into leaf in the spring, typically not before May. This can be useful in areas prone to late frost, but a little worrying if you're not expecting it! Do not be tempted to water them to "help" them into leaf, since this is the time when they are probably most vulnerable to over-watering. 

The attractive parts of the flower head are bracts, which are actually modified leaves, but which resemble petals and surround the tiny true flowers in the centre. These are white in the species, but there are now many pink cultivars too. Since they are bracts not flowers, they last longer, often starting green and star like before expanding to a more rounded shape as the true flower opens. In some cultivars, the bracts then mature to pink. Many cultivars also produce attractive fruit. These resemble big round strawberries and are indeed edible. Although I'm not a particular fan, it's good to know that they will do no harm to inquisitive fingers! I'm told that they make excellent jam or even wine. And if that wasn't enough many of them also give lovely autumn foliage colour in shades of red. The intensity of colour may be defined by the weather and growing conditions, with some cultivars colouring more reliably than others. Nevertheless, these really are fabulous plants for multi-season interest, with the variation between the cultivars enabling the perfect plant to be selected for every occasion.

CORNUS angustata 'Full Moon' 
There are a number of "minority" species whose exact classification is under debate. Some authorities consider them to be subspecies or geographical variants of C. kousa, whilst others attribute them to C. capitata. For now I have maintained them as individual species until their status is better understood. This one is fully evergreen even in our exposed conditions here. Similar in principle to C. kousa, the bracts mature a little later, so it is florally not at its peak until at least July. The creamy white bracts are huge, but the fruit which follow are massive by comparison to others in the group, often equalling or even exceeding the size of a golf ball. Since they are produced later in the season, they will ripen to red most effectively in a warm sunny site.
See also C. capitata, C. elliptica 'First Choice' and C. emiensis.
See it in our Quarry Garden.

CORNUS 'Ascona '
(C. florida x C. nuttallii) A small tree with gently pendulous branches. Thus it becomes clothed down to the ground with large white flower bracts in May. Vivid red autumn colour.
See also the cultivars of Cornus nuttallii.

CORNUS capitata
The first thing you need to know about this spectacular species, is that although it comes from the Himalayas and China, it is not quite as hardy as the other species we have previously concentrated on. It is however, such a classic that we concluded we really need to make the effort. One of the problems is simply that it wants to be evergreen - and having leaf in winter makes it more vulnerable to cold and general exposure. Crucial therefore, to choose a sheltered site for it. In northern and colder climes, I would suggest that the risk is too great and you should consider instead one of the many cultivars of Cornus kousa. C. capitata flowers a little later, peaking in July instead of June, but the structure and beauty of the flower bracts is the same. The habit tends to be a little more shrubby and it doesn't get as big in the long term. A fantastic crop of large, juicy, strawberry-like fruit round-off the display in the autumn.

CORNUS 'Dorothy' 
(C. florida x C. nuttallii) I am indebted to Talon Buchholz for sharing this magical plant with me. He introduced it as part of his Flora Wonder(tm) Collection of Buchholz Nursery where it forms an upright deciduous tree to some 10' in 10 years. There are other well-know hybrids between these two parents of course, but they all sit happily at the nuttallii end of the scale. This one by contrast appears much closer to its florida parentage. The flower bracts are soft white near the centre with a warm pink edge.

CORNUS 'Eddies White Wonder'
(C. florida x C. nuttallii) Just to further confuse matters, there are two forms of this popular plant. We offer the true American form, which is similar to C. 'Ascona' with its lightly pendulous habit. The other is much more upright and more akin to C. 'Ormonde'. Large white flower bracts in May, and fantastic red and orange autumn colour.
See also the cultivars of Cornus nuttallii.

CORNUS elliptica 'First Choice'
We are grateful to Mark Weathington at JCRA for sharing this one with us. This is an evergreen variety, in our collection most similar to C. angustata 'Full Moon' yet visually very different, particularly in its foliage. This one has a bronze flush to the leaves, especially when they are young and they are almost glossy as they mature. The creamy bracts in July are very much as you would expect for the group. This is an exciting variant to add to the collection and I am looking forward to watching it develop.
See it in our Woodland Walk.

CORNUS emiensis
There seems to be little information available about this one, which the RHS attribute to C. capitata. Perhaps that is the case, but visually it is poles apart. The foliage of our C. emiensis is a warm copper colour, richest in the young growth, but largely maintained through the year. It has a wonderful dense, cascading habit, thus naturally making a large shrub rather than attaining the proportions of a tree. The "flowers" share the typical 4-bracted structure of the group, though they tend to remain smaller and  more star-like than many, further enhancing the grace of the plant. It is evergreen, so will benefit from a sheltered site, but it should be as hardy as other similar species like C. capitata and C. angustata. The original plant that I came across was in a large pot (though of course there is no obligation to grow it thus!) and although I would be  more inclined to plant it in the garden in the normal way, it did make a very lovely specimen in a large container. 
See it in our Quarry Garden and Woodland Walk.

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