In summertime red twig dogwoods can look like space fillers, adding nothing but a bit of structure and not very interesting flowers. It could be that the shrubs are preparing for the next six months: in autumn and winter, they begin their extraordinary payback, with moody foliage followed by flaming stems.
When we visited the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley in Surrey, we found three of our favorite colorful varieties of red twig dogwood, looking their best in winter. Read on for our checklist of must-have cultivars (and see our guide to Red Twig Dogwood: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design for more tips for coaxing many seasons of brilliant color from your shrubs):
Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer.
1. Dogwood ‘Midwinter Fire’
People who plant for winter color are usually keen gardeners, and therefore optimists. It’s easy to appear this accomplished if you choose tried-and-tested performers in the Cornus family. One of the most astonishing reds is Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, the Bloodtwig Dogwood which displays a palette of red with orange, on the same plant.
2. Prune with Impunity
If you are renovating an old garden, approach outgrown blobs of shrubby dogwood, willow, or ghost bramble with a pair of loppers—this month. Alternatively, if they are in good heart and good color, enjoy them for a bit longer.
3. Ghost Bramble
Ghost bramble is quite a grown-up plant, generally cultivated by people who know what they are doing. And yet, for all the atmosphere it gives to an otherwise dull garden in winter, it is worth knowing that all that needs to be done is to cut it back to ground level in early spring. A chainsaw will do.
4. Dogwood ‘Sibirica Ruby’
When it comes to pruning for color, you can coppice red stem dogwood in the same way as ghost bramble. Reduce it (almost) to the base, ideally just above the first two buds. If you prune in late March or early April, new growth will be more clearly visible and you will not be faced with cutting back the stems in their prime.
5. Dogwood ‘Bud’s Yellow’
Shrubby dogwoods are so tolerant of wet that they make good bog plants. Growing them around a pond has the advantage of allowing them to be seen easily, with their reflection an added bonus.
6. A Horizon of Color
Another option for pruning a dogwood, that is often seen with willow, is pollarding. After young plants have been left alone for their first two or three years, they can be pollarded by cutting back the main branches to two or three feet above the ground. Older specimens, like those growing around the lake at Wisley (as seen below), may have a single trunk that thickens over the years. These are also pollarded. Young stems are cut back to old wood.
After pollarded shrubs are returned to stubby trunks in March or April, they soon will be disguised by summer perennials and grasses.
A colorful winter landscape is every garden’s birthright. For more ideas for adding vivid drama against gray skies, see our Garden Design 101 guides, especially Red Twig Dogwood 101 and Shrubs 101. Read about more of our favorite winter-worthy shrubs:
- Landscape Ideas: Boxed in by Boxwood? 5 Favorite Shrubs to Try Instead.
- Paperbush 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.
- Landscaping 101: How to Plant a Bare Root Hedge.
- 10 Garden Ideas to Steal from Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst Castle.
- Shrubs 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.
- 7 Fragrant Favorites: Winter-Flowering Scented Shrubs.
Additionally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for dogwood tree with our Dogwood Tree: A Field Guide.
Interested in other types of trees? Get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various trees (specimen, deciduous, evergreen) with our Trees: A Field Guide.
Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various shrubs and hedges with our Shrubs: A Field Guide.
N.B.: This post is an update; it was first published December 2018.