When the last of my Siberian huskies joined her siblings in that snowdrift in the sky, my mother – who’d cared for Dakota Star during the day while I was at work – suggested we plant a memorial tree. It was a lovely idea, so I set out to select just the right specimen. Something soft and fuzzy, maybe, like a white pine. “A dogwood,” Mom said. “What about a birch? You like birches.” A dogwood, she insisted. Japanese maple?
“Are you listening to me?” she asked. “A dogwood.”
Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’
Wolf Eyes Chinese dogwood
Zones 5 to 9
Small ornamental tree
Exceptional focal point in the mixed garden or as a specimen
Wavy, light to dark, gray-green leaves with ivory margins provide a unique texture and sense of movement; white blooms emerge in spring to early summer and last for several weeks, followed in fall by small, reddish, raspberry-like fruit
We both love Cornus florida which, before hardiness zones began to blur, would not have survived our frigid Northern winters. And I appreciate Cornus alternifolia, but Mom was determined to have a “true” dogwood flower. So I made a few phone calls and asked for recommendations for a small memorial dogwood – without revealing it was actually in honor of a dog. The minute my friend suggested a cultivar called ‘Wolf Eyes’, I was hooked. Sight unseen, I knew it was perfect.
And in the 10 or so years since we planted it, this small, slow-growing Cornus kousa has indeed proved to be the perfect choice. It’s a standout in the mixed border garden where it provides a flash of light against a backdrop of large, dark shrubs and pines. Each medium to dark, gray-green leaf bears a margin of soft ivory, and the ruffled texture of the foliage creates the illusion of movement even on a still summer day. Come the dog days of late summer, the leaves begin to blush slightly, eventually turning a deeper, nearly brick red.
In spring and early summer, creamy white, star-shaped flowers stand proudly above the foliage. Each bloom has a prominent, light green cone, which inspires the name ‘Wolf Eyes’. Blossoms often can last for up to 6 weeks before turning a light green and dropping. However, the flowers are followed in autumn by small, reddish fruit – resembling tiny raspberries – that can be difficult to spot because of its appeal to local birds. In fact, this multistemmed, shrubby tree is a haven for birds due to its densely branched, nearly horizontal habit. When you think you see the foliage trembling and there’s not a trace of breeze, it’s either an optical illusion caused by the ruffled leaves or a party of fidgety birds that has taken refuge among the branches.
‘Wolf Eyes’ performs well in full sun or slight shade and prefers slightly acidic soil that’s moist and well-drained; avoid planting it in areas subject to standing water. Heavy, alkaline soils – like those in much of the Chicagoland area – can challenge this selection. Luckily, Mom’s property once was rich farmland, and our tree has thrived with very little supplemental moisture or nutrition once it established.
Photo courtesy of Sally Benson.
During a decade of growth, this ‘Wolf Eyes’ has shown no susceptibility to anthracnose or powdery mildew, and pests have been virtually nonexistent. Unlike its Siberian canine friend, it’s remarkably tolerant of heat and humidity, although foliage can flag a bit if the plant is allowed to dry out in extreme temperatures. Give it a good, deep drink and it’s ready to shine again.
No matter its intended purpose – highlight for a mixed garden, specimen tree or memorial plant – Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’ is an excellent choice. Full of movement. Tough and beautiful. Just like Dakota Star.