Plant of the month: Japanese cornelian cherry

As the garden emerges from its winter slumber, the bright yellow flowers of an unusual large shrub glisten in the low winter sun

Cornus officinalisThe dogwoods (Cornus) is a large and diverse group of plants; from large trees to shrubs grown for winter stem colour as well as low growing groundcover species. Cornus officinalis is a large, deciduous shrub reaching around 5m (16ft) tall and spreading a similar amount and, as it gradually matures, it forms an attractive ‘vase’ shape making a beautiful specimen plant in a border. One of this species’ greatest attributes is its peeling and flaky brown bark which shows up particularly well during the winter months, when you can see the shrubs’ skeletal outline.

The other main reason this plant is grown is for its small flowers. These emerge from the bare branches in late winter in small umbels – dangling clusters – and are bright yellow with visible anthers. During the winter period the flowers really stand out against the dark brown bark and the flowers are followed by dark green leaves as well as rounded bright red fruits which are also edible.

Cornus officinalisThis is where its common name, the Japanese cornelian cherry, originates. It's easy to grow and will tolerate sun or part shade in well drained, moisture-retentive soil. It also requires little pruning, other than shaping as required, after flowering has finished in the early spring, when the aim is to emphasise its vase shape and remove crossing branches.

You can find this particular species on the edge of the Woodland Garden in the Hilltop at Hyde Hall where its bright yellow flowers catch people’s eyes as they walk past the Farmhouse. In this setting it associates well with other ‘woodland’ shrubs such as Mahonia, Euonymus as well as Aronia and Amelanchier. This part of the garden looks at its best in the spring when gems such as hellebores burst into bloom as well as ground cover plants such as Pulmonaria (lungwort) and Brunnera which mingle amongst early spring flowering bulbs such as Galanthus (snowdrops) and Eranthis (winter aconite).

A very similar Cornus can also be found at Hyde Hall in the Gold Garden: Cornus mas (cornelian cherry) which also has small yellow flowers - but its bark is not quite as attractive as its Far Eastern cousin, and it has a slightly larger spread. The Gold Garden features plants with golden foliage or flowers such as the pine Pinus mugo ‘Winter Gold’ and daffodil Narcissus ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’ as well as one or two dark green foliage shrubs such as Osmanthus heterophyllus which act as a strong contrast.

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