R. Wayne Mezitt is a 3rd generation nurseryman and a Massachusetts Certified Horticulturist, now chairman of Weston Nurseries of Hopkinton and Chelmsford, MA. He has served as president of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association, the New England Nursery Association, and the American Nursery and Landscape Association, based inWashington,DC.
Around the middle of February, an “open winter” like we’re seeing now (lacking significant snow cover) creates uninspiring views in many gardens. Taupe appears as the most common tone. All the deciduous trees and shrubs are still bare-branched, and none of the leafy plants have yet appeared. Certainly some evergreens and the silhouettes of weeping plants or stately trees help break the monotony. And the ornamental grasses that still stand after our surprise October snowfall are attractive. But lacking that blanket of pristine snow, a lot of nature’s dormant-season “visual deficiencies” become much more obvious.
But in my yard some views are much more appealing because of the trunks and stem colors of the plants I’ve chosen for just this reason. Paperbark and Three-flower Maple, (Acer griseum and A. triflorum), Seven-son-flower (Heptacodium miconoides), Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamelia), River Birch (Betula nigra cultivars) and tree lilac (Syringa reticulata) are examples of trees displaying fabulous winter bark displays. When you plant these at strategic locations around your yard your eye is drawn to their unusual color every winter, no matter what the weather. And all of them are Cary Award winners that offer additional visual attributes (flowers, foliage, fruit) during the growing seasons.
The dogwoods (Cornus), both trees and shrubs, offer some of the most attractive midwinter features. Few sights this time of year compare to the brilliance of the red-stem dogwoods (Cornus alba, sanguinea and sericea cultivars) planted as a ribbon of color or grouping in front of some of the larger ornamental grasses. The cultivars ‘Midwinter Fire’ and ‘Bud’s Yellow’ display orange and yellow stems respectively, particularly eye-catching against an evergreen background.
The intensity of tones of all shrub dogwood stems tends to be most striking during the coldest months, and vigorous young branches are most intensely colored. Be sure to cut the branches back hard every couple years in May to maintain their size and encourage strong new growth. All shrub dogwoods do well in normal garden conditions and thrive in moist soils. Some cultivars including ‘Elegantissima’ and ‘Ivory Halo’ even offer variegated foliage in spring and summer as an added feature. All of the shrub dogwoods display appealing fall foliage colors before their leaves drop in autumn.
Another shrub-type dogwood is Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas), which can also be grown as a small tree, single or multi-stem. Mature plants display cinnamon-brown bark with patchy areas of lighter fawn-colored exfoliation. Its most remarkable feature for late winter is its bright yellow flowers which appear in profusion, sometimes as early as mid-February, lasting for weeks until daytime temperatures begin to warm consistently.
And few trees display as richly-colored bark as the Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa) which develops plates of multi-toned grey and silvery bark that curls to reveal orange-tan under-bark tones. A tree with multiple seasons of appeal, this dogwood features long-lasting flowers in June followed by strawberry-like red-orange fruit in autumn. An impressive variety of cultivars have been introduced in recent years, so there are a plethora of choices for flower and foliage colors from which to choose.
Lastly, there is the native, herbaceous, mat-forming groundcover dogwood, Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), preferring moist soils and partial shade in this region. It’s usually buried under snow in winter, but with this year’s open conditions, its reddish-purple semi-evergreen foliage and even some red-orange fruit may add luster to your garden now.
As a group the dogwoods offer such a broad range of opportunities for winter and year-round appeal, they should be an important component of every garden in this region.