I am guilty of dismissing some plants because they are common. But I think that I am prepared to give any plant several chances and Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ is such a lovely thing in winter with its red stems that I had to include it in the garden. But it is such as easy plant to propagate from hardwood cuttings that I certainly was not going to buy the 20 plants I had intended for the ‘hedge’ at the back of what was going to be my winter garden. So my first winter, two years ago, I took lots of cuttings and pushed them into the horrible muck that masquerades as soil here. It was a lesson that even the toughest plants have their limits. Because I did not prepare the soil but simply made slits with a spade and pushed in the cuttings, and we then had a dry summer, the cuttings failed, apart from two. I have never had so many losses with cornus cuttings before, and these were inserted at the right time, in November. My plans have changed, but I do have two healthy plants as a result and my word, am I glad that I made the effort.
Cornus alba is a tough, hardy shrub that famously tolerates wet soil. It is native to Siberia and China and was introduced in 1741. Cornus can be divided into two groups for most gardeners’ purposes. There are the slightly tricky kinds that become wonderful small trees with tight clusters of dull flowers surrounded by four large white bracts and the easier kinds with white or cream, four-petalled flowers and no bracts. These have only moderate floral attraction but are grown for they colourful stems, berries, that are often white or blue, but can be black, and sometimes good autumn colour. Cornus alba belongs to the latter group and the ‘alba’ refers to the white berries, though they are often tinged with blue.
According to ‘Bean’ ‘This is a rampant shrub, apt to smother anything less vigorous than itself growing near. It is therefore best adapted for forming an isolated mass on a spacious lawn, or on the banks of a pond, where its deep red stems are remarkably effective all through the winter.’
It has become one of the most widely planted shrubs, most commonly in the cultivar ‘Sibirica’ which has especially bright red stems. They are at their most brilliant in their first year so it is common practice to cut away all the stems, back to a woody base, in spring. This should be done every one or two years. There is some confusion about the exact identity of this plant and it may be the same as ‘Westonbirt’. It is supposed to be of lesser vigour than the plain species but the supposed lack of vigour of the original ‘Westonbirt’, at the eponymous garden, may have come about because the original plants were repeatedly eaten by rabbits.
It is commonly planted with the North American Cornus stolonifera which naturally has red stems but is seen almost exclusively as the lime green ‘Flavirimea’ which has bright yellow autumn foliage. My Cornus alba is rewarding me beyond anything I deserve after its faltering start and those two that made it through the problems are now covered in intensely coloured leaves in beetroot red.