It sounds crazy but there actually are some plants that look better when their leaves are off! Corylus contora ‘Avellana’ (Contorted Filbert) is one that comes to mind. And I believe that the red stems of the shrub dogwood (Cornus sericea and other species) are dazzling through the winter compared to the rest of the year, especially when the snow falls. It’s brilliant; just when the garden is calling for colour the Cornus stems shed their cloaking foliage and cry out for attention. You’d think it was planned that way.
Cornus sericea is the native species of the dogwood that we see along the sides of the Hope-Princeton Highway wherever there is a water source. There are several other species, hybrids and cultivars available in the trade, some with green foliage, others with variegated green and white leaves. All of these are extremely hardy, surviving temperatures as low as -40 deg. C. Plants will grow in a wide range of soil conditions, from wet feet at the edge of a pond to somewhat dry. Small white flowers form in summer, followed by small berries that birds love. Best colour from the stems is found when plants are grown in full sun, but a light shade is fine. Best colour is also found on newer growth and the best way to obtain this is to cut some of the older stems down hard each spring to allow for fresh vigorous growth.
If one shrub is pretty in winter, three or five are spectacular when massed together. I have a variegated Cornus planted in front of my cedar hedge. The dark evergreen foliage is a perfect backdrop for the colour foliage and the red winter stems. There are more compact varieties such as ‘Red Gnome’ and ‘Arctic Fire’ (pictured) which grow to just 1.5 metres tall and wide. Taller types which grow 2 metres and more can be very effective screen plants or anchor shrubs for the back of large borders. Cut stems look fabulous in Christmas containers.

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