After years of seeing this lovely shrub/tree at both RHS Chelsea and Hampton Court (flower time depends on the weather and variety) I have finally managed to get one to do well in my own garden. This is a white variety of Cornus kousa – Chinensis ‘China Girl’. Cornus Kousa is generally later flowering than the very similar Cornus Florida varieties (as the names suggest, the latter are from the US whereas the Chinensis are from China and Japan). There are also some delightful varieties with dusky pink flowers (such as ‘Beni-Fuji) do look them up if you are considering one as there is a delightful range of colour. Actually the flowers are not true flowers but leaf bracts (like a poinsettia) but it matters not for our purposes.
I have had a number of years of miserable looking Cornus in my garden and I suspect that the secret of its success this year has been water -they do seem to like it really quite moist (which it has been for most of the spring and early summer). They will grow in sun or part shade and whilst they are not very drought tolerant, like most plants they don’t want to be in waterlogged soil so don’t assume that because they like it moist they will be ok in a bog! I think this is why they struggle a bit in our clay-rich soils as we lurch from drought to bog, but where I have improved the soil with compost and grit they are faring well.
From a design point of view they are really useful as they grow relatively slowly so can be kept manageable, flower early, and have a naturally spreading habit. They can therefore be used as a focal point on a view line, a stand alone specimen, or as the upper story in a border. You can clear the lower stems to suit and encourage the open vase-shaped structure which is attractive throughout the year without creating dense shade beneath. Think dappled woodlands…As a result of their slow growth rates they tend to be a bit pricey for a given size, and are not as widely available as many alternatives for these positions (such as Acers), but the gorgeous flowers and tolerance of a wider range of soils makes them useful in positions where Acers would not be my choice. Worth a go if you have irrigation or somewhere that is not likely to dry out!
In terms of practical uses- I see many gardens with every shrub clipped into a ball or amorphous rounded shape, and if you have one of these you will be amazed by how much difference it makes getting a few looser shapes in. Be bold and hook out the more unrelenting thuggish green shapes to clear space, add in one or more Cornus or Viburnum, and perhaps some purple leaved shrubs (see previous selections) for some splashes of colour. This will have a much more dramatic impact than adding bedding plants.