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The variegated dogwood, or Cornus alba, is a deciduous shrub that sometimes grows as a small tree. Variegated actually describes the leaves of the shrub, which are typically light green and have edges of white. Variations may appear in the colors, however, and leaves may display a vein-like appearance of colors in yellow or gold as well. In some cases, shrubs have a mixture of these colors that appear as blotches or splashes of color along the vein lines.
These shrubs typically grow from 4 to 8 feet (121.92 to 243.84 cm) in height and have a spread of almost 10 feet (304.8 cm) in length. They produce clusters of small yellowish-white to white flowers that bloom from mid spring to early summer. These flowers give way to small, pale white fruits that mature in August or September.
Since the fruit of the variegated dogwood has a somewhat low sugar content, birds generally ignore them during the first part of winter. Once other food sources are no longer available, however, the fruit becomes more desirable. A variety of songbirds, crows, and game birds are just some of the birds that depend on the availability of the shrub’s fruit in later winter. It is also a preferred nesting site for the American goldfinch.
While noted for its showy flowers and fruit, the stems of the variegated dogwood bring it the most attention. Sometimes better known as the red twig dogwood, the stems of this shrub turn from their summer color of brown to greenish yellow to a bright color of red during the winter. The red stands out so boldly and vividly amongst the winter snow that the plant is often used in landscaping because it provides yards with such a stunning display.
Although most trees mature before unusual stem or bark patterns occur, the variegated dogwood actually loses its red coloring as it grows older. Mature stems will lose their reddish look and, over time, change color to a dull brown. In order to prevent this from happening, individuals may prune some of the stems back to 3 or 4 inches (7.62 to 10.16 cm) from the ground in early spring to provide a new growth of stems that will display the red color during the winter.
When planting the variegated dogwood, a location with part shade to full sun will help to ensure that the stems have their best color results. These plants do best in a soil that has a sandy loam to clay loam mixture that stays moist. They are suited for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) zones 2 through 8.