The Cornus (dogwood) genus includes a wonderful array of trees and shrubs. Some have winter flowers, others offer stunning bracts in late spring, colourful winter stems, striking autumn foliage or berries.


Cornus trees are perfect specimens for a small garden. In almost every month of the year there's interest from one cornus or another.

The common name for cornus, dogwood, is thought to come from the old English word 'dagwood'. It's possible that the hardwood of these trees was used to make ‘dags’ – arrows.

How to grow dogwood

Plant bare-root cornus shrubs or trees in autumn to spring, in well-prepared soil. Those grown for colourful winter stems need moist soil and full sun, while other types need a moist but well-drained, neutral to acidic soil in a sheltered, sunny spot.

Where to plant dogwood

Cornus sanguinea in border
Pink-tipped yellow stems of Cornus sanguinea in a winter border

With such a wide range of trees and shrubs in the cornus genus, the requirements for each can be slightly different. As a general rule, those grown for their winter stems, such as Cornus alba, do best in a damp soil, such as at the edge of a pond. Full sun is preferred as this leads to brighter winter stems.

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Cornus mas, grown for its winter flowers, prefers a neutral to acid soil in a position of full sun. A sheltered spot is preferable. Another cornus that enjoys an acid soil is the low-growing Cornus canadensis (creeping dogwood).

The tree forms, that include Cornus kousa and Cornus controversa, can cope with a clay soil but some aren’t successful on a shallow chalky soil.

The best time to plant or move dogwood and other shrubs is in autumn. In this programme clip from Gardeners' World, Monty Don shows you how to re-home an unhappy dogwood. He takes you through the process of digging it up, preparing the new planting hole, watering thoroughly and applying a mulch:

How to plant dogwood

Planting a cornus
Planting a cornus

Improve the soil before planting. Dig in some well-rotted organic matter. When planting trees use a tree stake in order to offer support in the early years. Wrap the bottom of the trunk with a tree guard to protect the trunk from rabbits. Water plants well.

How to propagate dogwood

Hardwood cornus cuttings
Planting a row of hardwood cornus cuttings

Cornus sanguinea, Cornus stolonifera, Cornus alba and Cornus sibirica strike well from hardwood cuttings taken in winter. Wait until all the leaves have fallen and then with a sharp and clean pair of secateurs remove a stem of pencil thickness. Cut the stem into lengths 15cm long. Make sure you know which is the bottom of each cutting. An easy way to avoid mistakes is to cut just above a bud at the top of the cutting at an angle.

Insert the cuttings into some worked garden soil so that half of the cutting is above the ground. Firm in and forget about them. Hopefully in spring cuttings will have taken and you can pot them on.

How to care for dogwood

Cutting back cornus
Cutting back cornus

Cornus trees don't require any pruning apart from the removal of lower branches to create a clear trunk.

In this clip from Gardeners' World, Joe Swift demonstrates how to cut back dogwoods for the best autumn colour:

Cornus sanguinea, Cornus alba, Cornus stolonifera and Cornus sibirica must be cut hard back in March to encourage colourful stems.

Growing dogwood: problem-solving

Cornus 'Midwinter Fire'
Cornus 'Midwinter Fire'

Cornus are generally trouble free. If cornus grown for their winter stems are offering a disappointing colour it's likely due to one of two reasons: cornus need plenty of winter sun in order to encourage bright stems. Crowd your plants with too many sun-blocking evergreens and the colour can be poor. It's also vital to cut back stems hard in March in order to encourage fresh new growth. It's the new stems that offer the best colour.

Dogwood for autumn colour

Combine the bright stems of Cornus with darker foliage as a backdrop for a striking display as here with a Carex

Dogwood varieties to grow

Cornus controversa 'Variegata'
Cornus controversa 'Variegata'
  • Cornus kousa ‘China Girl’ – a flowering dogwood, it has white bracts in June followed by strawberry like fruits after a hot summer. A small hardy tree or shrub reaching 6m
  • Cornus mas – a valuable winter-flowering hardy shrub. Offers tiny scented yellow flowers on bare stems in January and February. Height 3m
  • Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ – a hardy shrub grown primarily for it bright orange/red winter stems. Small white flowers in May. Ideal for a damp soil. Reaches a height of 1m
  • Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ – often called the wedding cake tree as it has tiers of branches. Variegated foliage with small white flowers in early summer. Slow growing but when fully mature reaches 10m. A fantastic specimen tree
  • Cornus alba 'Sibirica' – deep red stems in winter. Reaches 3m