I think I might have made a mistake. Nothing that can't be corrected, of course, but a mistake nonetheless.
While on a recent visit to a rather unusual nursery in Ashtabula County, I noticed large shrub (or small tree, depending on your point of view), lining the driveway entrance. I knew exactly what it was from the strawberry-like seedpods that hung all over the branches. And as soon as I saw its size, my heart skipped a beat.
I retrieved my husband from the fish and garden pond department and asked him if he recognized the shrub. He didn't, but that wasn't surprising because the same variety that we have planted in our landscape has not yet bloomed or produced those interesting seedpods.
"Look at the size of that thing," I told him. "I didn't realize they got that big."
I was taken aback by its size because the shrub in my yard is somewhat close to the house. Too close, perhaps.
If you haven't already figured it out, I'm speaking of Cornus kousa, or Kousa dogwood, also called Japanese dogwood or Chinese dogwood. When I bought the tiny slip of a bare-root start and put it in my garden, I expected it to grow 10 to 15 feet tall and resemble a small tree. The shrub I was seeing at Girard Nursery in Geneva was much larger, at least 20 feet tall and nearly as wide.
My Kousa is now about five feet tall and hasn't yet bloomed, but each year I keep waiting for those small yellow-green flowers encased within larger white bracts, which are really modified leaves that resemble petals. Think poinsettia.
I didn't buy the plant for the flowers; however. It is the seedpods that look remarkably like strawberries and feel like little red sponges, that attracted my attention. It is also the reddish-purple leaves in fall that made me want to put this shrub in my landscape. But now, unless I can keep it pruned to a reasonable size, I might have to reconsider its location. Twenty feet high is not the problem, but 20 feet wide will likely cover my front walkway and most of the garden where the shrub resides.
I'm a sucker for shrubs that produce berries. In addition to enjoying the colorful show these plants put on in fall and winter, I enjoy watching the birds that come to the garden to enjoy the tasty winter treats. Most of those, however, produce small berries, although colorful. Callicarpa americana or Beautiberry is a popular winter shrub with its deep purple berries. Viburnum varieties can have berries that produce a wide variety of colors including white, yellow and even a new variety called 'Cardinal Candy' that has lovely rosy-mauve berries.
But the berries on the Kousa dogwood are unique because of their resemblance to bright red strawberries in both size and shape. When encountering a fruit-filled specimen, people often stop and ask, "What is that? A strawberry tree?"
The fruit is edible, although I've never tried one. The spongy texture isn't appealing to me, but it is appealing to birds. Fortunately, Kousa dogwood is a slow grower, often taking up to 25 years to reach its full potential. But time has a way of flying. My tree is about five years old and I plan to be around in 15 years, so I'd better start looking for a new site before it gets much taller.
If you are considering a Kousa dogwood, and I highly recommend it, choose a site that is in full sun to partial shade. They prefer moist, well-drained soil but will adapt to dryer conditions. If I decide to move my plant, it won't be until spring because they don't take kindly to being transplanted in the fall. In addition, it will give me the winter to think about what I want to do, if anything.
Pruning just might be an alternative option. Like other dogwoods, Kousa can be pruned to the shape and size you want. It naturally grows upward first and has been described as vase-shaped in its younger years. As it ages, however, it begins to spread and this is where I might run into trouble later.
When pruning any tree or shrub, the general rule of thumb is to follow the "five D's." These are branches that can be removed any time and are those that are dead, dying, diseased, damaged or deformed. Once these branches are gone, then you can start thinking about the shape you want. If you want the shrub to be more like a tree, remove the bottom lateral branches to form a trunk. A sixth "D" is double leaders. If the tree has more than one central trunk growing up the center from which lateral branches extend, try to prune so that only one central leader remains. This not only strengthens the tree, but also helps it keep an attractive shape. Also remove any branches that criss-cross as well as any "water sprouts" or suckers of young branches coming from the rootstock or along the bottom of the trunk. Always prune when the plant is dormant, preferably in late winter or early spring.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.