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Gardens Blog

My favourite plant… November

Cornus aff. controversa new foliage

Do you ever see a plant and think ‘I’ve simply got to have one of those’? I did, last week, losing my heart totally to a beautiful tree for which I would happily clear swathes of my garden, just to be able to enjoy it for its structure, colour and habit. And can I have one? Alas not.

The tree in question, Terminalia Sericea or Silver Terminalia, grows in the South Luangwa Valley in Zambia where is currently coming into spring foliage and looks stunning. In habit, it is a small, finely structured tree, holding its branches out in rising tiers, and when mature forms a rounded head. The joy of it is the way it holds its leaves – picture a magnolia tree and the way the flowers are like tulips, facing upwards. Well, the Silver Terminalia holds its mid-green leaves in elegant pointed clusters like this at the very end of its slender branches so that they appear to float in the air. The leaves themselves have a broad silver strip down the midrib which catches the light and the overall tree seems to shimmer in the breeze. It flowers about now, in short spikes in time producing single seeds in a pinkish papery case. It is deceptively hardy, putting up with depredations from insects and elephants (not likely to be an issue in the average British garden, I admit) and enjoys good drainage though it can also tolerate waterlogged soils. However, if too comfortably sited, with adequate light levels, it is quite capable of becoming invasive which while not a problem in the Zambian bush, might be less welcome in the UK, even if it were frost hardy – and it is not. So that’s that, then.

Or is it? In the spirit of Adopt, Adapt, Improve, let us adopt the style of the tree, adapt it to our domestic conditions and improve on its requirements and discuss what trees are available which provide a similar floating structure with attractive leaf and flower. Two options are possible, I find. The first, Cornus Controversa, the ‘Wedding Cake Tree’, is a small deciduous tree growing up to 15m in height. In spring the green, elliptic leaves appear alternately on the branches followed by clusters of tiny, white, star-shaped flowers in May and June. Green berries ripen to blue-black in autumn, providing a valuable food source for birds. The foliage turns to reds and purples, giving a beautiful autumn show and once the branches are finally bare, its ornamental tiered form is still an asset to the garden. A smaller variety, Cornus Controversa ‘Variegata’, grows only to 8-10 m high. Its leaves are bright green with a thick cream margin which gives a slightly different effect.

The second, Cornus Alternifolia Argentea, or ‘Pagoda Dogwood’, is closer to the Terminalia Sericea in structure and appearance. It is smaller growing at 3-4m and is thus more suited to the restricted space of many gardens. It grows readily even on heavy clay but as it is a little slow to get going, it is best to buy the largest plant you can afford to get the desired effect as soon as possible. Junkers Nurseries are introducing varieties with slightly coloured variegation and stem colour, which may be worth investigating. The leaves of C. Alternifolia Argentea are also smaller, and the creamy white flowers are displayed in flat panicles, held upwards. Autumn fruit and leaf colour make this a superb tree for the garden.

Growing conditions for both trees are the same; tolerant of dappled shade and best in full sun and neutral soil.

So which shall I choose as a lasting souvenir of my visit to Zambia? Whilst I have yearned for a Cornus Controversa for years, having seen the Silver Terminalia I am going to shamelessly change my mind and plant a large Cornus Alternifolia Variegata where the layers will float airily upwards and the leaves will shimmer and catch the light. There won’t be a Carmine Bee-Eater sitting there, alas, but perhaps the local bullfinches might oblige with an occasional fly-past instead.