True blue, rare in flowers, is easily obtainable in bog sage

Jimmy Williams

A lot can be said for old tried and true varieties of plants, but I’m not going to say those things today. We will follow up last week’s endeavor on somewhat new and sometimes improved varieties of shrubs and trees that more than pay their rent over a year’s time in your garden. 

Flowering cherries are abundant as road-killed possums this time of year. They are beautiful to behold with clouds of mostly pink flowers that light up the landscape and the azure sky above. The fly in the ointment is their propensity toward problems of every kind, often beset with disease and with surface roots that range far and wide until nothing else will grow in their vicinity. These are not worth their salt. 

That said, there are other varieties that can contribute their colorful flowers, usually early in the year, without being fraught with the aforementioned problems. 

We have a fairly large specimen of a flowering cherry, Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis, which, as you have surmised, flowers in the autumn, November to wit, in our neck of the woods. This variety has proven for me to be carefree, except when it was young and a tree cutter felled a nearby large oak or sweetgum that fell across the cherry, neatly splitting it in half, from which incident several years were lost in its recuperation. 

Recover it did, and now it is back to some 20 feet tall in the edge of our woodland. But you beg the question, what makes this particular cherry more worthy than so many others? The chief attribute is its apparent lack of troubles that plague the  others. 

This cherry, often sold as Higan cherry, bears flowers, rather wan it must be admitted, in November and then again in February and March. Wan they are, but what else flowers in two of the most flowerless months of the year? The Higan cherry is capable of growing to 40 feet over many years.

Most ornamental cherries are wide growing trees, but there are a couple of varieties that are very vertical and narrow. These fit a requirement for a tight space in perhaps a nook or corner. Be sure to research whichever variety you settle on to make sure it is not troubled with mentioned weaknesses.



About this time of year nurseries and garden centers are flooded with yellow-twig and red-twig dogwoods. They “sell on sight” as the saying goes. After they then die of canker diseases about three years later, then more of them “sell on sight.”

There are few of these dogwoods — faintly related to our native flowering dogwood — that do not succumb to canker or other diseases in our summer heat. They are far more reliable in the north. 

I have three specimens of ‘Arctic Sun’ that have prospered for enough years that I am comfortable in recommending them. The twigs are valuable throughout the winter when all around them are gray and brown. They are worth their salt in winter. At other times they are worth it for filling up space.

The young branches of ‘Arctic Sun’ are not as blood-red as some other varieties, rather they range from yellow to coral to orange and red-orange. They are very visible in the winter  landscape. Mine are situated in a mixed border where they give life when most other things are dormant.

The young branches are the most colorful, so the shrub — to 10 feet if unpruned — should be cut back to near the ground in late winter every year or every other year. I cut mine back about three weeks ago.

Another valuable trait of this dogwood is the fact that cuttings rendered when they are pruned will often root when stuck in the ground to about six inches deep. In fact, when I prune them I make it a habit to stick some of the cuttings back nearby and then transplant them after they have rooted.  

A larger plant of another species that has colorful winter twigs of about the same color is the coral bark maple, of Japanese origin. Like the previously mentioned dogwood, the coral bark dogwood has the brightest color on new growth, but in this case hard pruning is only done every few years and is a bigger job than with the red-twig dogwood. I cut our specimens back about every three years. Several coral bark maples can be found in local landscapes. 


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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