Brighten Midwinter Days

“Nature gives each season some beauty of its own,” wrote Charles Dickens. Though I enjoy seeing the underlying structure of the leafless tree branches, especially when coated with ice, endless overcast winter days are dreary. Any pop of color is most welcome.

In the winter landscape, red twig dogwood, Cornus sericea, is a striking sight. This deciduous native shrub is hardy from USDA Zone 3 to 8, although south of Zone 7 it is prone to diseases such as canker. The bright red bark of the upright stems brings unparalleled interest to the winter scene. In addition, it bears fragrant white flowers in spring and berries which attract birds in late summer. The foliage turns red-orange in autumn before the stunning bare bark is revealed for winter interest.

The native cultivars are somewhat large, six to nine feet tall and eight to 12 feet wide. These are useful as a screening hedge, but there are also beautiful smaller hybrids that fit nicely into the home landscape. One of these, Red Rover, has purple foliage and blue berries. The good news for us is that these shrubs tolerate clay soil and somewhat damp conditions. Color is best in full sun—that is, eight hours of sun daily—but it is a good choice for partial shade as well.

​Bark color is best on young stems, so pruning to encourage new growth is necessary. The gardener may choose one of three techniques. The first is called coppicing, which means one prunes the shrub to a height of about eight inches every two or three years. Another method is called pollarding. This involves cutting stems back to the main branches every year. One sees this technique practiced a great deal where the goal is to control the size of mature trees. A third method is to prune out about a quarter of the oldest growth in early spring each year.

(Photo: A pollarded tree.)

I have seen a stunning taxicab-yellow bark cultivar grown in enormous pots set against a gray wall. It was hard to believe they were living plants and not modern sculptures. Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramia’ yellow is the botanical name for one sold as Bud’s Yellow. Another variety, Arctic Sun, may be easier to find. Its bright yellow stems are tipped with red. Like the red varieties, these need to have old growth pruned out to promote new growth which has brighter color.

My husband loves to prune, so I am undaunted by the continuing maintenance needs of these dogwoods. For optimal enjoyment, I think they should be placed where one

can see them all year. During the short, cold days of winter, this is most comfortably done looking out a window.

Wow! I may have just solved a landscape issue at my house.

Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity of a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home. Email her at

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