Variegated Kousa Dogwood: The “Eyes” Have It

Plants with variegated foliage add interest and vitality to the home landscape. They brighten shady corners and create a feeling of depth and movement in the shrub border. In addition, they make a noticeable contribution throughout the entire growing season: colored leaves are longer lasting than the longest blooming flower.

Variegated plants help bring attention to plain green plants in their midst, by virtue of contrast. Large variegated plants should be selected judiciously. One or two contribute just the right amount of drama and clarification to the shrub border, too many overwhelm.

Variegation can take many forms. On some plants, green leaves are splashed or streaked with color, such as yellow, white and pink. On other plants, leaves may be edged with contrasting color. This can mean a green leaf outlined in white, or a white-centered leaf outlined in green. There are many variations on this theme, with purple, yellow and pink combining dramatically with shades of green to produce plants of stunning beauty.

One such plant is a variegated form of the popular kousa dogwood, Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’. This tough, shrubby tree reaches a height of 10-15 feet at maturity and is nearly as wide as it is tall. It is an excellent small specimen tree and is a valuable addition to the shrub border. It flowers in late spring, after our native dogwood. Each bloom is made up of four white, pointy bracts that can last up to 6 weeks. These are followed by red, raspberry-like fruits that are produced in late summer.

Like other kousa dogwoods, ‘Wolf Eyes’ prefers fertile, acidic soil that is neither very wet nor very dry. It is considered disease-free and has few pests. Mature trees have mottled, attractive bark that adds to its beauty and provides winter interest.

It is the show-stopping foliage of the ‘Wolf Eyes’ kousa that sets it apart. Each 3-inch-long, grey-green leaf is margined with white. This contrasting leaf edging emphasizes the leaf shape: elliptical with wavy, rippled edges. New summer growth is flushed with pink, as are the new branches. Fall brings these pink tones to every leaf, for a distinctive autumn show.

I have planted a ‘Wolf Eyes’ kousa in my shrub border, where it simultaneously  is accented by and calls attention to adjacent all-green shrubs such as longstalk hollies and rhododendrons. It is a harmonious companion to hostas that echo its white-edged leaf variegation, such as H.’Cherub’ and H.‘Tambourine’. It is complemented by other green-and-white variegated perennials that have distinctly different forms: a dwarf striped grass and a stand of Solomon’s Seal.

Grouping different variegated plants can sometimes produce garden chaos, but this collection has a sense of serenity and harmony. This is achieved by casting the ‘Wolf Eyes’ kousa in the leading role and pairing it with plants that either have related variegation or no variegation.

Even within a named cultivar, such as ‘Wolf Eyes’, variegation can vary from plant to plant. When I was selecting my tree, I had six specimens to choose from at the nursery. The variegation was slightly different on each one, so leaf pattern was an important consideration for me, as was tree health and branch structure. Ultimately, I chose one that had extremely wavy leaves and green flecks in the white margin. This tree never fails to elicit comments and questions from guests, who find it just as fascinating and gorgeous as I do.

‘Wolf Eyes’ kousa dogwood is as eye-catching as its name suggests. Its stunning variegated foliage, white flowers and mottled bark add drama, beauty and distinction to the home garden and landscape.

By Joan Butler