I was talking last month about shrubs for shady places. There are some families the Creator evidently worked on with gardeners specifically in mind. The dogwoods were one; Eden must have been full of them. Lighting up shady places and the downtime of the gardening year (not that one pictures Eden having much downtime) is their great family gift. Winter gardens rely on them as much as on hellebores and heathers.
The most glamorous dogwood in fact takes things a bit too far – at least for any garden of mine. The Catwalk Tree would be a good name for C. controversa variegata: if it could speak it would say ‘ Ta dah’! Where do you put such an eye-catcher: a creamy wedding cake that says ‘Clear the room for my pirouette’ and needs at least twenty feet square to perform in? The one I planted at Saling Hall, after years of hesitation, was kept in bounds by the muntjac, rather to my relief. They chewed off its extremities until I had to give quietus to the poor bedraggled thing.
Far more elegant and better mannered is its cousin, C. alternifolia argentea. It is a smaller plant, and less deliberate in its branching pattern. The tier-potential is there but you have to tease it out, year after year, with your secateurs. The leaves are smaller, on red stalks, mottled with white instead of cream and charmingly twisted. Given the space it can hold the stage, but it doesn’t bawl for attention. Cornus mas, our Cornelian cherry, and its Japanese equivalent, C. officinalis, are discreetly charming, too, claiming the limelight only for their precocious yellow flowers and autumn leaves. The star of this division is ‘Elegantissima’, the white-variegated version of C. mas. It’s slow: it took fifteen years to become considerable at Saling Hall, admittedly in deep shade, but then its October show of brilliant red fruit among the delicate pale leaves was worth the wait.
I came to the ‘flowering’ dogwoods rather late in life, wrongly believing they only really worked in America. It was the Chinese dogwood, C. kousa chinensis, that opened my eyes; a pair of small trees flanking a woodland path at Saling. Neighbours came round in early June to discuss the relative merits of the one with its creamy sepals opened flat and the one where they stood up to attention. Their leaves turned different colours in autumn too, yet as far as I know they were both K.c.c. Many dogwoods, American ones especially, outgun them in size and colour of flowers. Those of Cornus 30-8 ‘Venus’, a cross between C. kousa and C. nuttallii from California, are startling enough to shatter the peace of any woodland glade.
For our London garden, though, there is no playing with such grandiose ideas. The all-purpose Cormus we have here is the modest no-flowers-to- speak-of C. sibirica ‘Elegantissima’. In winter its stems glow a warm red in the light of a lamp I focus on it. In summer its white variegation is perfect in a sunless corner. There are brighter-coloured stems: ‘Midwinter fire’ is an eye-catcher, and I’ve always liked the yellow ‘Flaviramea’. But the leaves are the clincher. In a tight dark corner a true dual-purpose plant like this beats all the aristos of the family.