Graceful and spectacular are perfect words to describe the wedding cake tree.
All photos by Mark Leichty

There are few trees that I would describe as breathtaking. However, a planting of three mature Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ triggered such a strong emotional reaction when I saw them recently on a garden tour that there is no better word to describe them. Commonly called variegated giant dogwood, or wedding cake tree because of the layered look of the branches, this magnificent tree simply cannot be overlooked. The alternating leaves are green with wide margins of pure white extending to edge of the leaf. The green part is artfully serrated giving each leaf a uniquely beautiful pattern. At a distance, the overall appearance of the tree is white, and well cultured specimens have a very distinct layering of the branches, giving rise to the common name wedding cake tree.

Cornus controversa is native to China, Korea, and Japan. It has given taxonomists some challenges since it was first documented in the early 19th century. Most members of the genus Cornus have opposite leaves. C. controversa has alternate leaves and was first named Cornus macrophylla. It was later called Cornus brachypoda in an 1845 publication and that name was accepted in western Europe and America. Around 1890, Veitch Nurseries in Exeter, England, introduced a variegated form and called it Cornus brachypoda ‘Variegata’. It was Danish botanist and surgeon Nathaniel Wallich who suggested the name Cornus controversa which we use today, and thus C. controversa ‘Variegata’ is now the accepted name of this beautiful tree.

It grows best in light shade in well-drained soil. In May, it produces lacy white flowers that develop into black berries by late summer that are loved by birds. The flowers provide nectar for bees and butterflies. Given regular water and room to spread, the stunning “layer cake” effect is soon evident. C. controversa will be the bright star in any garden!

Mark Leichty is the Director of Business Development at Little Prince of Oregon Nursery near Portland. He is a certified plant geek who enjoys visiting beautiful gardens and garden centers searching for rare and unique plants to satisfy his plant lust. mark@littleprinceoforegon.com