last updated 06/02/2022

Layered Cornus

The characteristic feature of this group of Cornus is its layered branching habit. Dependant on the vigour of the individual, these layers can remain discrete with clear gaps between them, whilst in some cases vertical young growth can develop off each layer to effectively "fill in" the gaps as the plant matures. There are two main species included in this visually descriptive grouping: Cornus alternifolia and Cornus controversa. There a number of common names used to refer to them, which are confusingly interchangeable within the species. The include names such as "wedding cake tree" and "pagoda tree", both alluding to their archetypal habit.

 In contrast to the so-called "flowering dogwoods" with their showy floral bracts, this group produces more "normal" flowers. Individually these four petalled flowers are small, but they are held in clusters (called cymes) in May, usually on top of the branches at their tips. This can be in such profusion that the overall effect is very ornamental. Clusters of small blue-black berries follow in the autumn. 

There are a great many named cultivars of both the main species in this group, selected for a range of features; including foliage colour (summer or autumn), leaf shape, bark colour and overall habit. Over the years, we have refined our comprehensive collection to focus on the very best cultivars. Although this is clearly a somewhat selective criteria, the fact is that some cultivars are inherently weak and not good garden plants. The exposure and conditions of our challenging site does mean that the selections we offer are the most robust.

We have found that the more mature root-balled specimens, from the open ground and accustomed to being outside, establish brilliantly, even on heavy soil (provided that they are planted appropriately), really benefiting from the greater maturity and substance. Usefully, plants in this group are rarely damaged by late frost. However, they can be slow to get going when young and small, so I would strongly recommend starting with a larger plant.

Cornus controversa 'Variegata' is arguably the most famous Cornus in this group.
Cornus controversa Variegata from Junker's Nursery

Cornus alternifolia

This species is native to a significant area of eastern North America. It is the smaller and shrubbier of the two species dealt with in this group, in the UK best considered to be a large shrub or small tree. However, it is extremely versatile as it can be encouraged to grow in a number of shapes. If left entirely to its own devices, it will typically form a multi-stemmed shrub. The branches will be layered initially, particularly whilst growing strongly, but as it matures new vertical shoots will be generated along the branches which will fill in between the original layers. Nevertheless, they are very tolerant of pruning, so it is not a difficult process to maintain, or indeed to emphasise the layers, by removing these new verticals. It is also possible to manipulate these plants to grow with a single trunk to achieve what is often perceived as being a more classical tree-like shape. This is best achieved by letting the plant establish, and then pruning it back to a single strong trunk. As with all formative pruning, it's best not carrier out when the plant is too young as it can weaken the plant. It is possible to then progressively remove lower side growth until the desired height of clean trunk is achieved. Thus this is an incredibly versatile species, of which a number of selections have been made; mainly for foliage colour, but with the different foliar effects comes variation in vigour and habit. These are fundamentally hardy and undemanding to grow. Their greatest vulnerability is probably to overly wet soil in the winter, so good structure and adequate drainage is essential. We prefer to propagate the selections of this species by cuttings, on their own roots, to permit them to grow according to their natural habit without influence from a rootstock.

Cornus alternifolia 'Argentea'
This is a truly wonderful large shrub or small tree. Although closely related, and in some ways similar, this should not be confused with the similarly coloured cultivar Cornus controversa 'Variegata'. This one is smaller growing and the variegated leaves, green in the centre and brightly edged with creamy white, are also smaller. A height of 3-4m is a realistic expectation at maturity, with the potential to achieve all manner of shapes to suit your preference.

Cornus alternifolia 'Brunette'
'Brunette' is one of the naturally more compact selections with darker purple-brown stems giving the potential for wonderful colour contrast with other planting in winter. The dark green leaves often show a paler margin, giving them a slightly wavy edge. New growth in the spring is tinted purplish red, reflecting the pigmentation of the stems.

Cornus alternifolia 'Goldfinch'
This unusual selection boasts golden yellow variegation instead of the more common creamy white. It shares the characteristics of the species in all other respects.

Cornus alternifolia 'Illusion'
The variegation on this one is much less regular, manifesting itself as blotches and splashes of shades of gold and chartreuse. The young growth is a lovely orangey colour, which is particularly effective later in the season when it really glows on a sunny day, amongst the yellows and greens of the more mature foliage. We have found that this selection has surprisingly good vigour given its variegation.

Cornus alternifolia 'Moonlight'
This American selection is similar to the well-known 'Argentea' in that the dominant colour is provided by the creamy white variegation. However, this one has richer pink tints through the young growth particularly, and a flush through older foliage (though this latter effect can be dependant on light levels and growing conditions).

Cornus alternifolia Silver Giant from Junker's Nursery Cornus alternifolia 'Silver Giant' 
Our own introduction, this plant is rather exciting. Occurring as a sport on a Cornus alternifolia 'Argentea', the variegation is much more subtle. The central portion is an almost greyish green, whilst the margin is a silvery white. This lesser variegation makes it blend in better with a more natural setting, whilst also giving it more vigour. Thus it is a jolly good garden plant which seems very tolerant of most situations. 
See it above our Quarry Garden

Cornus alternifolia 'Winter Surprise'
Another of our own introductions! This one has amazing golden-coral coloured stems in winter (nearly as good as the fabled stem Cornus) yet with the wonderful tiered habit of this species. The foliage is almost green, but it is illuminated by the subtlest of golden variegation, according to light and nutrient levels. Rarely available.

Cornus alternifolia 'Yellow Spring'
This is very similar to C. alternifolia 'Illusion', displaying similar orangey young growth over yellow flushed variegation. This type of variegation tends not to be very consistent, so there are a number of possible foliage effects for both cultivars, which makes it even more confusing! It is no longer in production.

Cornus controversa

And now we're onto Cornus controversa, the larger and typically more "tree-like" of these two species. It is the Asian expression of this group, being native to China, Korea, the Himalayas and Japan. As with Cornus alternifolia, whose cultivars are described above, a great many selections have been made of this species.

It is very important to appreciate that we graft all our plants of C. controversa cultivars onto C. controversa rootstocks. Elsewhere it is common practice to use Cornus alba as a rootstock, a practice that we are strongly against. C. alba is fundamentally a suckering shrub. It seems inherently foolish to graft something that wants to be a tree onto a rootstock that wants to be a suckering shrub! And so the reality is that plants grown in this manner sucker profusely from below ground level, which is virtually impossible to control. The root-system is rarely strong enough to provide appropriate support and the tree grows in a noticeably more shrubby, almost "stunted" manner. Hence we prefer to take the extra care and time to graft onto C. controversa to give the plants the best possible opportunity to make fabulous specimens.

Cornus controversa
Rarely offered in its own right, in my opinion, specimens of the straight species make wonderful arboretum trees. When well grown on its own roots, the greater vigour of the natural form makes a majestic layered tree. If left unpruned, significant space will be needed to accommodate the breadth of the horizontal branches, but if the trunk is cleaned up, then the comparatively light, layered canopy allows under-planting of smaller woodlanders from small trees, down through shrubs to the woodland carpeters.

Cornus controversa 'Candlelight'
This cultivar has surprising bright yellow new growth in the spring, which mellows to green through the summer. Unfortunately its inherent lack of chlorophyll makes it inadequately robust for our challenging conditions, so we no longer grow it. It needs a protected environment in order to thrive (or even survive!)

Cornus controversa Laska from Junker's Nursery Cornus controversa 'Laska'
This on the other hand, is a fabulous plant. Although retaining the characteristic layered habit of the species, this selection is more compact. All things are relative though, which means that this is the perfect size for the average garden, developing a wonderfully architectural habit. A perfect centrepiece. The foliage is also interesting and distinctive, with much narrower lobes adding to the overall elegance of this lovely tree, culminating in bright yellow autumn colour.
See it in our Woodland Walk.

Cornus controversa 'Lucia'
This is another worthy more recent addition to our collection and range. Also developing the layered habit as you would expect, the surprising feature of this cultivar is the bright orange-red colour of the young bark. The young foliage has a subtle yellow centre to otherwise rich green leaves, though this is more apparent in some growing conditions (ie light and nutrient levels) than others. Typically this one seems to make a narrower tree than the typical variegated form, though still attaining good height.

Cornus controversa 'Pagoda'
A named, grafted green-leaved selection. 

Cornus controversa 'Troya Dwarf' 
Most cultivars of this species have the potential to become "proper" trees (given long enough!) but this one is definitely different; instead growing very slowly with a shrubby habit. The young foliage is a handsome pinky-chocolate colour. I used to be amused to have this cultivar in the collection, but it was so slow growing that we rarely propagated it. More recently I've become disillusioned with the difficulties of maintaining under and around it - its low shrubby stature made it totally inappropriate as an arboretum specimen - so I'm afraid it has gone completely.

Cornus controversa 'Variegata' 
The archetypal "Wedding Cake Tree" is a beautiful small tree with well defined layered branches, striking creamy margined leaves and dark red young stems. Pretty pale pink and yellow shades of autumn colour. Notoriously slow to grow away as a small immature plant, this establishes so much better from a more substantial open ground specimen such as those we offer. Indeed if more instant gratification is required, we also have a number of magnificent semi-mature specimens. It can take time for them to send up a strong, dominant leader and some formative pruning may be necessary to reduce the width of the lower branches until this has happened. It is possible to select a single leader, or to allow multiple trunks to go up, dependant on the effect that is desired. 
See it in our Gardens.

Cornus controversa 'Variegata Frans Type' 
This distinct form originated in Northern France. The leaves are a more grey green than the more common form and the cream margin rather narrower, giving a slightly more subtle variegation. This results in a more vigorous and robust constitution and is therefore better suited to less ideal sites. In our conditions, this one tends to make a broader tree by comparison.

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