Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Damn Good Plants - Red twig Dogwoods, Part One

Part One - Tatarian Dogwoods

Nakedness is something you don't often think of when gardening.  Not that I'm advocating naked gardening, time is cruel, and my mental image of myself is far from reality.  Instead, I'm talking about the beauty uncovered when plants shed there robes of foliage, as in the case of red twig dogwoods.  At this time of year, Red twig dogwoods morph from a fairly unassuming shrub into a thing of wonder as their foliage drops to show off their fiery red stems.  No longer a background shrub, it comes out of its cocoon to grab the attention of the observer, changing a dull winter into a festival of color.

Berries - Flickr, Webeyer
There are three types of dogwoods known for their show of vivid colored stems during the winter.  Cornus alba, the tatarian or siberian dogwood, Cornus serica, the redosier dogwood and Cornus sanguinea, the blood twig dogwood.  The first two are fairly similar in growth and can be hard to distinguish apart when viewed by the average eye.  Even for myself, the differences are so slight that I don't concern myself with the technical side but instead focus in on the aesthetics of what it can provide. The blood twigs on the other hand are quite striking and fairly easy to identify.  Each group has its benefits, and in the interest of doing justice to each, I've broken the post into three parts so we can discuss them fully.

The tartarian dogwood can be found from Siberia, down to northern China and into Korea, growing on moist, boggy locations.  The common name 'Tatarian', is from of the ethnic group, Tatar, that live in the same area where this dogwood is common.  The first plants to be grown outside of their range were recorded being sent to  the Chelsea Physic Gardens in 1741, but was never admitted into the garden on account of its rampant spreading behavior   However smaller, well mannered varieties were produced from that first introduction that did make it into western gardens.

Stooled shoots - Flickr, Basswulf

Historically, the stems of this dogwood have long since been used in weaponry with arrow shafts found dating back to the Mesolithic period.  Its wood is extremely hard and has also been used for making cooking skewers and pipes to name but a few.  Some reports also refer to its use in gunpowder.  Charcoal, base ingredient  made from dogwood stems is considered the best for small-arms powders.  Dogwood charcoal was found to burn more rapidly than other woods, producing a stronger explosive to propel a round. Production of wood for charcoal processing could be done annually in a process called 'stooling' or 'coppicing' , where stems are cut down to its base in late winter.  The plant would then regenerated its growth and be ready for harvest the following year, something that is impossible to do with tree type dogwoods.

Below is a list of the varieties that I have seen come through the garden center during my time here.  As you will see, the Siberian dogwood comes in many different forms making the selection process harder when deciding which one to use in your garden.

'Argento-marginata' - Flickr,
'Argento-marginata' or also known more commonly as 'Elegantissima', is one of the most popular variegated forms in the market.  The cream white margin on the pointed leaf makes for an attractive show during the summer months.  It is a large specimen, growing upto 6-7 ft but less vigorous than the species.  Like others within the group this is very controllable with pruning   Fall color has a rosey red to add to its already interesting variegation but after leaf drop the vibrant red stem shine all winter long.

'Ivory Halo' (Bailhalo) is a more compact and densely branched form than the one mentioned above, to come out of Bailey's Nursery in Minnesota.    Making it a top pick for a smaller garden, this cultivar has become the one of choice for both landscapers and homeowners alike.  Apart from the reduced height, all other traits are the same as 'Elegantissima'

'Buds Yellow' - Flickr, tobchasinglight
'Buds Yellow', not as widely used as the variegated form, 'Buds Yellow' offers yellow stems instead of the normal red seen in the species.  Considered far more superior to our own canker disease prone C.sericea 'Flaviramea', this yellow form shows well when highlighted against snowy ground.  When combined with red stemmed dogwoods, the effect in the winter garden can be very dramatic.

'Aurea' - Flickr, CiaranBurkeGardenPic
'Aurea' and 'Prairie Fire' appears to be one of the same, both displaying a solid golden leaf.  By summer, the color softens to a lighter yellow on the outer branches, but more chartreuse green towards the interior.  Fall color fires up to a brilliant red before shedding.  The stem color is a rich flaming orange-red in winter.  With a range of attributes it's easy to see how versatile this variety is in the garden.

'Red Gnome' (Regnzam) is an extremely compact and low growing form (3 to 4 ft high, 4 to 5ft wide) suitable for any garden.  The slender green leaves turn a deep ruby red during the fall and give way to slender, upright red stems in winter.  Its height and compact habit makes it useful for hedging.

'Sibirica' - Flickr, Brianpettinger
'Sibirica' is a confused type, often being found named 'Westonbirt' or even as a different species called C.atrosanguinea.  Either way this is still the most popular red stemmed type in production today.  Foliage during the summer is a straight green and displays good fall coloration.  For anyone considering mixing yellow twigs with a red type, this would be the one to use as foliage color is the same.  The coral red stems appear to be more upright and the berries are blueish instead of the normal white, common for the rest of this group, which may of lead to the confusion over its naming.

The Siberian dogwood is somewhat an easy growing plant that doesn't require anything special to prosper.  It will tolerate wet locations and periods of drought once established and can take sun to partial shade.  Young stems produce the best color, so in early spring cut back 1/3 of its growth within 6 to 12" of the ground to encourage new growth.  These stems will shine the brightest in the landscape over the following winter until the next 1/3 to reduced back and allowed to regenerate.

In part two, we'll take a close look at our own red twig dogwoods and highlight some of the top varieties that have emerged from that group.  I hope I have intrigued you to stick around to see why a dogwoods bark can really lead to a bite!

Part Two - Red osier dogwoods
Part Three - Bloodtwig dogwoods


  1. Wow, some great profiles of interesting shrub dogwoods. Minnesota must be the breeding spot for redtwig dogwoods-- I have C. sericea 'Isanti' which came from Minnesota. I do love that Elegantissima with its pretty foliage, and can see why it is so popular (if you have enough room).

    1. Definitely a plant from and for the north. I can just about get away growing them as long as I'm careful. Thanks for reading.

  2. I have a dogwood tree but none of the shrubs. I wish I had more room because each cultivar is so beautiful. I really like this series of posts because I always learn something. Great last sentence! :o)

    1. I've enjoyed delving into the stories of these plants to uncover more than just how to grow them. It gives them personalities than just objects. Thanks for all your support.