Cornus Alba: The Beauty Of Tatarian Dogwood

In selecting plants for decorative winter effects, do not limit your list to evergreens. Several deciduous trees and shrubs are outstanding for their beauty in winter. One of these, Tatarian dogwood, Cornus alba, has bright red or purplish branches which stand out with great effectiveness in the winter sunshine.

This shrub dogwood is a member of the group of plants often called cornels. It is native to eastern Siberia, northeastern China, and northern Korea.  

attractive branches of cornus alba the tatarian dogwoodPin
Attractive Cornus alba branches aka Tatarian Dogwood

Tatarian dogwood is a vigorous shrub with erect or spreading branches and a more brilliant coloration than our native red-osier, Cornus stolonifera, the North American counterpart of the Asiatic species.

The native dogwood, Cornus stolonifera, tends to produce low branches which arch to the ground and root at the tips. Its uniformly bright red bark is dotted with widely scattered corky lenticels or breathing pores. 

When sectioned, the branches show soft white pith. While the pointed ovate leaves of the American species taper gradually to the acute point at the apex, the leaves of Tatarian dogwood usually curve to a more abrupt point. 

The berry-like fruits of both species are whitish, but the seeds within are shaped differently. Red-osier fruits have almost round seeds slightly pointed at the top, while the seeds of the Asiatic dogwood are ellipsoid and pointed at both ends. 

The shape of these seeds is considered the final word in distinguishing these species.

These details make little difference in the garden picture. Any evenly red-

branched cornel growing wild in North America can usually be assumed safely enough to be the native red-osier or the more hairy-leaved Bailey dogwood, Cornus baileyi. 

Tatarian dogwoods and their varieties are found chiefly in gardens, nurseries, and nearby areas where birds have distributed seeds.

Flowers and Berries

The flowers of the Asiatic group are not showy, lacking the spectacular petal-like bracts which make the flowering dogwoods so much admired. Instead, the blooms of Tatarian dogwood are white, crowded in rounded clusters from 1″ to 3″ inches across. 

As they are produced in late spring, when there is keen competition for floral prizes, it is not surprising that they do not command particular attention. 

However, the white berries which follow, usually a little less than 1/4″ inch across, make an unusual feature in late summer, and birds seem fully appreciative of the juicy morsels these offers.

In the typical form of Tatarian dogwood, the new growth remains a uniform bright red, but in one variety (Kessel-ringi), it is a striking dark purple. The coloring is somewhat obscured during the growing season by the large leaves, but when these fall, the beauty of the branches grows more and more impressive. 

Specimens look best against a dark background, as at the edge of a pond or in front of evergreens. The effect of a single plant or a small group viewed against pines or hemlocks at the corner of a lawn is perfect. 

Use yew, arborvitae, or juniper for the evergreen note for a combination occupying less space but offering the same rich contrast.

In most cases, it is desirable to use small, fine-textured plants in foundation plantings. Still, the pleasure of looking from a window in winter directly into a pattern of the brilliant red branches makes such a rule seem rather academic and “made to be broken.” 

Whether the picture through the branches is soft new snow or a shimmering crust of ice, or fresh green grass, it will be full of artistry. Naturally, a Tatarian dogwood should not be planted by every window, but two or three properly planted where they can be seen easily from the dining room and kitchen will give a great deal of pleasure.

Cornus Alba and New Growth

These shrubs, which may grow to 10′ feet, are fast-growing. Shoots from the base often surpass 4′ feet the first year. 

Since the new growth has the most brilliant coloration, it is desirable to encourage its development. Also, to prevent old bushes from becoming dense and tangled.

It is best to cut out 3 and 4-year-old branches as near the ground as possible. Pruning can be done in late winter to good advantage. It is advisable to keep specimens down to 3′ or 6′ feet in height in-home gardens. 

Without systematic thinning to encourage new growth from the base, Tatarian dogwoods may become too large for locations where they can be best enjoyed. 

Aside from this yearly pruning, they require little attention. Few shrubs are of easier culture. Plant Tatarian dogwoods at any time; they thrive in any moderately fertile soil and any fairly open situation. Notably, poor and deficient soils do not give good results, nor are shady locations satisfactory for these shrubs.

A Few Tatarian Dogwood Varieties

A number of varieties of Tatarian dogwood are available in nurseries, including the one with dark purplish branches, variety kessel-ringi. 

Siberian dogwood, variety sibirica, has branches of a lighter coral red and is perhaps even more decorative than the typical form. Several clones have variegated foliage. Of these, variety spaethi is outstanding, with its leaves edged in clear yellow. 

The bright green-branched cornels occasionally seen are varieties of Cornus stolonifera or Cornus sanguinea. 

While these are attractive when space is available, they seem less effective in-home gardens than the red-branched dogwoods. Other inexpensive shrubs rarely offer decorative qualities you can enjoy so thoroughly during the winter months.