While flowering dogwoods are grown for their beautiful bracts in early summer, the best-known members of the Cornus genus are those grown for their colourful winter stems.

Cultivars of Cornus sanguinea, Cornus alba and Cornus sericea are grown for their attractive winter stems, but some of these have the benefit of attractive and colourful foliage too, giving them year-round appeal.

Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’ is one of the most useful, with pleasing green-and-white variegated leaves, flushed with purple-pink, rich autumn foliage and dark red winter stems. It grows to only 1.2m, with a similar spread, and can be left unpruned. It is an excellent mixer with perennials, roses and other shrubs.

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Cornus kousa var. chinensis The Chinese flowering dogwood is a spectacular, long-flowering, small tree. Its flowers appear in early summer, surrounded by four creamy-white bracts that are up to 5cm long to attract pollinating insects. 10m x 6m. RHS H6, USDA 5a-8b.

Many dogwoods grown for their foliage or stems have the added bonus of summer flowers. The variegated Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ is a lighter and more graceful form of Cornus controversa and, with a similar wedding-cake silhouette, is one of the most beautiful variegated plants. The leaves are delicate, hanging along the elegantly poised branches. The creamy, early summer flowers add to the frothy, lightness of the plant.

Of smaller stature, but with similar habit, is Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’. Its dark stems and sage and white leaves make it easier to accommodate in the average garden. It is lighter, frothier and perhaps prettier than its larger cousin.

Less frequently seen, Cornus mas ‘Variegata’ is a particularly fine foliage shrub, with the benefit of yellow, fluffy flowers on bare branches in late winter. The defined green and white leaves provide the perfect setting for cherry- like fruits that develop in autumn.

When to prune cornus

If you're growing cornus for colourful winter stems, prune in late winter or early spring – February or March – before the plants have started into leaf. Pruning at this time will keep the stems compact and colourful the following winter.

How to prune cornus

Let your cornus establish for three to four years before you prune for the first time. Cut back to between 7cm and 10cm from the ground.

Read our detailed guide to pruning dogwoods.

The best cornus to grow for foliage and stems

Cornus alternifolia 'Argentea'

Foliage of Cornus alternifolia 'Argentea'
© Dianna Jazwinski

The variegated dogwood is one of the finest foliage shrubs with floating horizontal branches and delicate green and white leaves. Lacy, white flowers in early summer.
Height 3m. Hardiness RHS H6, USDA 4a-8b.

Cornus alba 'Gouchaltii'

Cornus alba 'Gouchaltii'
© Dianna Jazwinski

Dark-red stems in winter remain decorative after the ochre and green leaves have fallen. This dogwood thrives on any soil; excellent in wet conditions. Cut back hard to 20cm every two years.
Height 1.8m. Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 3a-7b.

Cornus alba 'Siberica Variegata'

Cornus alba 'Siberica Variegata'
© Dianna Jazwinski

Much less vigorous than other red-barked dogwoods; ideal for smaller gardens. Attractive foliage with the bonus of dark red winter stems. Grows on any soil in sun or shade.
Height 2m. Hardiness rating RHS H7, USDA 3a-7b.

Cornus controversa 'Variegata' Franz type

Cornus controversa Variegata Franz Type
© Dianna Jazwinski © Dianna Jazwinski

An excellent form of the variegated wedding cake dogwood tree with grey-green leaves with narrow white margins. More vigorous than Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ and better in more challenging growing conditions.
Height 5m. Hardiness rating RHS H5, USDA 5a-8b.

Cornus mas 'Variegata'

Foliage of Cornus mas 'Variegata'
© Dianna Jazwinski

Tiny, golden flowers on bare stems in late winter before the white and green leaves unfurl. Scarlet fruits in autumn. This dogwood is growing and upright in habit when young.
Height 3m. Hardiness rating RHS H5, USDA 5a-8b.


Andy McIndoe lectures to gardening groups and societies at home and abroad, leads gardening tours and is consultant to well-known suppliers in the garden industry.