December plant of the month

Shining the spotlight on a dazzling winter-stemmed shrub - red dogwood

Red dogwood 'Red Cardinal'The dazzling stems of Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’ will enliven any planting during the dull days of December. Dogwood is the common name for shrubby Cornus, which is grown for its coloured stems or if left to its own devices forms mature trees and shrubs with colourful spring or summer flowers.
The commonly grown dogwoods originate from three main species of CornusC. alba, C. sericea and C. sanguinea, all of which have slightly different growth habits but the same attributes of brightly coloured young stems. Many new cultivars have been bred over the last few years with strident tones of yellow, orange and red stems.
Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ is the best known with its red stems, but it is C. sericea ‘Cardinal’ has brighter stems and is well worth seeking out. It is a vigorous, suckering shrub that forms a dense. Its lance-shaped, dark green leaves turn red and orange in autumn. As the leaves fall they reveal stems of intense red, which make a wonderful statement in any border during winter.
As with all winter-stemmed shrubs it is the young stems that produce the most vibrant colour. Left un-pruned it will gradually lose vigour and the bright colours will fade. To maintain the intense colour, hard-prune in spring when new buds are about to open. This technique known as stooling involves removing all of the previous season’s growth to one or two buds above last year’s cut. In response the plant will put on vigorous growth over the spring and summer and by the autumn the stems will be reaching their peak. Note, however, that newly planted shrubs should be allowed to establish first, so delay this hard-prune until their second spring. 
Cornus albaC. sericea and C. sanguinea all prefer moist soils and growth will slow if the soil dries out during summer. C. sericea will tolerate wet and clay soil and all of these Cornus will produce the most brightly coloured stems if they are grown in a sunny spot where the sun will ripen the stems. Dogwoods are often grown around the margins of ponds or lakes where their brightly coloured stems create wonderful reflections during the winter. 
At RHS Garden Hyde Hall dogwoods can be found growing around the Upper and Lower Pond. Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’ is planted near the garden entrance and in our new Winter Garden where it combines well with textural grasses such as Calamagrostis brachytricha or the golden haze of Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’. Winter-stemmed Cornus also work well combined with other contrasting foliage colours and textures such as the bright yellow needles of Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’ or Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald ’n’ Gold’ with its rich yellow and green leaves. For a darker contrast try the black-leaved Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’.
If you would like to compare the different varieties of dogwoods and their brightly coloured stems come to Hyde Hall this winter and take a walk through the Winter Garden where you’ll see the RHS plant trial of winter-stemmed Cornus in its full glory.

Discover more winter-interest plants

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.