Three plants that look good together: Cornus controversa 'Variegata' Astrantia major Anemone blanda
If I had to choose only one shrub for my garden it would be the sublime variegated dogwood, commonly known as the Wedding Cake Tree, Cornus controversa "Variegata", for it is surely one of the most beautiful of all deciduous shrubs.

It grows, with no great speed, into a large, tiered shrub of outstanding elegance and poise, its sweeping, spreading branches layering themselves like a wedding cake, wider at the base than the top. It has very fine foliage, each leaf carrying a wide, clear, creamy white margin around a central splash of pale green. In autumn, they flush pink and red before falling to reveal the dogwood's graceful skeleton and the red bark of its youngest stems. In summer, these branches are covered in a froth of creamy-white flowers.

It can be expensive and is sometimes hard to find, but caring for it takes no special skill. It will tolerate all kinds of soils (though it prefers it deep and rich), needs no pruning and is completely hardy.

It looks best when the surrounding planting is restrained. Its strong shape and variegated leaves will naturally make it a focus for the eye and its neighbours should complement rather than compete. A simple backdrop of green shrubs would emphasise the refinement of its form and the freshness of its leaves.

In a border, it mixes well with clumps of Masterwort, Astrantia major, a herbaceous woodland from central and eastern Europe. It is also known as Hattie's pincushion, because of its unusual flowers which are borne in sprays above the foliage. Each has a central, domed cluster of tiny, greenish-white florets, like a pin cushion, surrounded by a ruff of papery, white bracts veined with green. Sometimes the whole flower is tinged pink and there are varieties in a sombre plum.

The Astrantia makes a solid mound of green leaves, palmate and divided. They are large enough to be against the Cornus but simple and straightforward enough not to vie too much for attention.

In the soil beneath the Cornus, plant the small, knobbly tubers of the wood anemone, Anemone blanda, and as many as you can. In spring, while the Cornus is still furnishing its branches with new leaves, the Anemones will smother the ground in a carpet of blue and white stars.

John the Gardener

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