great shrub: cornus sericea ‘silver and gold’


IT’S ALMOST TIME TO GIVE MY WINTER FRIENDS the twig dogwoods and willows some pruning, the only care they ask in return for year-round beauty.  But will I really have the nerve to cut my favorite of all, Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold,’ back hard? Why I love this easiest of shrubs…and how that love may have backfired just a bit.

The first time I saw Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold,’ it was at the garden of Dick Lighty, then director at Mt. Cuba Center near Wilmington, Delaware, which studies, conserves and promotes native plants of the Appalachian Piedmont. (Mt. Cuba is a must destination if you can be there in spring.) Mt. Cuba introduced this plant to market in 1988, and ‘Silver and Gold’ won a prestigious Styer Award from the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society two years later.

In the world of plant introductions, that is epochs ago; so many “newer” plants have come along since. But to my eye ‘Silver and Gold’ looks as fresh and exciting as the first time I encountered it, which was way back then.

The plant appeared as a sport, or chance variation, of Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea,’ which itself is an unusual “red osier dogwood” (as the species sericea is commonly named) because of its golden, not red, winter bark color.

But the sport that became ‘Silver and Gold’ went one very showy step further: It displayed irregularly variegated green and white leaves. Many of the twig dogwoods are nondescript at best in spring and summer and even fall, but not this one, thanks to that showy foliage.

GROW ‘SILVER AND GOLD’ in full sun to part shade, where it will adapt to a wide range of soil types, including damp. Cornus sericea (formerly called Cornus stolonifera, for the way its roots sucker) is great for erosion control: along banks, for instance, and on slopes.  It has white spring flowers—nothing major, but nice enough—and fruit that’s not presumptuous, either, with a bluish tinge, though the birds do like it. In years when you prune hard, you may not have either one.

‘Silver and Gold’ (Zones 3-8) will get to maybe 6 feet high and slightly wider. If you want a faster mass of its year-round beauty, plant several small specimens in a triangular arrangement maybe 2 feet apart, which is why my “plant,” really three plants, is closer to 12 feet wide. In fact, I like it very much in masses, which can be seen from a long distance all times of the year. I grow it near some gold-fruited crabapples, above, that way.

So what’s my hesitation about pruning it, which is typically done about March or early April here by removing as many as a third of the oldest, thickest stems right near the base? The older wood is less colorful in winter—less golden—so I know it’s in my best interests to promote more young twigs to take the place of the older ones.

But there is always the “ah, but it looks so nice and full” syndrome; you hate to make a smaller plant out of a grown-in one (sound familiar?). And I’ve succumbed to that for a few years so now my plants might be better off cut down to about 6 inches, called stooling, to allow them to wholly rejuvenate, rather than just thinned selectively.

Wherein lies the lesson: If I had cut a couple of old stems out every year or two, I wouldn’t be facing being without my favorite dogwood until it has time to grow back in. What do you think? Will I dare?

  1. Catherine Dougherty says:

    The top picture just takes your breath away! Makes me want spring so badly~
    It went from 80 last week to 20 this morning here in Oklahoma… schizophrenic weather gives me (and my jonquils) fits!

  2. Gardenista says:

    It must be done. Regular pruning will help keep canker under control, improve plant vigor and stem color. I’ve not used this cultivar very often—how does this one rate for for foliar diseases? That’s my primary complaint with Cornus here in WI, love the plants but the leaves get so ugly in our humid climate. “Ivory Halo” starts out lovely and is a client favorite, and by August it looks hideous.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Gardenista. I agree that some of the Cornus have fungal problems (and also cankers on the stems) but this one has never failed me. Good all season, never falters. See you soon I hope!

  3. Joan says:

    Margaret, can you give a name to the other plantings in the photo of silver and gold? It’s such a gorgeous display, the golden shrub in the distance, the purple flowered surround. Is that a buddleia in the way back?

  4. Delores says:

    Margaret, We followed your pruning advice last year with regard to our very very old lilac bushes and they were glorious last spring. Thank you. We’ve planted many other shrubs and this will be their first spring so we’ll see how they did.
    BTW, I’m a huge fan of Friday Night Lights too – great stories and great acting — definitely an under-appreciated show. sorry it is going off the air and that it didn’t get more recognition.
    Saw you on Martha and enjoyed it. Here you were worried about your book and it’s getting rave reviews – as it should. I loved it.

  5. Benjamin says:

    Lord I love these little dogwoods. I have 9 ‘Arctic Fire’ out front, and in winter driving by the house it’s a sea of staggered red stems in sunlight. It’s like sitting by a warm fire. I’ve got another varieagated form whose name I can’t remember at the moment, but it grows best of all teh various species I have, and as you say, provides 4 season interest. I plant these shrubs for their stems, and more and more, the white berries which birds devour immediately. I wish more people had dogwoods! (See? I keep blathering on about them…..)

  6. Karen Bonacorda says:

    You mentioned you have willows in your garden. May I inquire about the varieties and what you think of them? I am considering one for my garden and would appreciate your opinion. I hear they can be difficult to control.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Karen. I have a few shrubby willows, including one (the rosemary willow) that I have let grow into a small tree. I also have pussy willows and arctic willows (which I haven’t written about) and a few others. Follow those green links to the stories I do have here on willows. I haven’t experienced any that are invasive. The traditional “weeping willow trees” that people sometimes plant are messy and not a great choice for a yard in my opinion.

  7. benjia morgenstern says:

    Question: red stem dogwood bushes..possibly “artic fire”..I have them out front facing north and getting a good amount of sun. I put them in 3 years ago and only a few stems are red . The foliage is beautiful but had expected more color in the stems. Am I not doing something right? Thankyou..benjia Morgenstern, NW corner of CT.

    1. Margaret says:

      Do you mean now, Benjia, or in winter? The stems won’t color up at this time of year as well as in the offseason. On some varieties my twigs are greenish-red at best right now; blazing red after leaf drop.

  8. Fran hamburg says:

    Hi Margaret,
    This is the first blog I have followed and am enjoying it immensely!
    I am a pretty serious gardener in western ma. and have several types of gardens on my property. A Japanese inspired garden, a rock garden, a hydrangea garden and a very beautiful Heath and heather area.
    I am wondering about pruning back some of my very large hydrangeas now. Any reason not to?
    Also would love to connect to any other gardeners in my area. I devote a lot of time to my gardens and would love to share info and my love of it with others. Anyone out there near me? I am in little hill town – , middlefield- near becket ma.
    Thanks !

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Fran. The Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge might be a good place to inquire about “community,” so to speak — they have so many events and classes (I have taught there some years).

      As for your hydrangeas, need to know whether blue (species macrophylla) or white with giant round heads (species arborescens) or the paniculata types (big cone-shaped flowerheads that go from white to pink-tan shades). Generally speaking, we don’t prune them now here — except to remove spent flower stems (the oldest branches, right to the base, that have already finished blooming) on the blue ones, and in later fall to perhaps slightly cut back the others if there is fear that they will whip around in winter winds or some such.

      My pruning FAQ’s page will lead you to some details.

  9. deb says:

    Hi Fran –
    I just found this blog and saw your post. Not sure if you’ll see this as it’s a year later! I’m also in MA, on the eastern side, north of Boston. Would enjoy sharing the delights (as well as angst) of local gardening, discovering new nurseries, etc. Your gardens sound lovely and I tend to always be playing catchup in mine as I do a lot of gardening elsewhere. I’m hoping Margaret forwards this to you!


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