Attractive in all seasons, the native dogwood, Cornus florida, is most spectacular in early to mid-spring when their gracefully layered, horizontal branches become covered in showy white or pink blossoms. The effect in the landscape is striking.
One of my strongest memories of these beautiful trees comes from when I was doing research in the Sandhills region of North Carolina. Here the native dogwoods are the dominant understory tree in the Longleaf Pine forest where we were studying the southeastern fox squirrel. In the spring, the dogwoods would burst into bloom before anything else and the beautiful layers of white blooms stood out brilliantly against the dark trunks of the tall pines and the red carpet of pine needles on the forest floor. I wish I had a picture - it was truly one of the most amazing sights!
Though dogwoods are most known for their lovely spring bloom, they are beautiful through all seasons and make wonderful small trees for the landscape. They have attractive foliage through the summer and come fall, the cold temperatures turn the leaves to beautiful shades of red and burgundy. The red fruit that develops in the fall adds more color to the landscape and provides tasty treats for the birds.
Dogwoods make wonderful specimen trees for a small yard or beautiful understory accent trees for a woodland garden. The showy "petals" that make up the flowers are actually colored bracts which surround a central cluster of the "true" flowers.
Not many spring flowering trees can rival the beauty of our native species, Cornus florida. Unfortunately, this species has been severely affected by the fungal disease, anthracnose. If left untreated, anthracnose causes decline in the tree and can eventually result in its death. Keeping your trees healthy through proper watering and feeding, raking up and removing fallen leaves in the fall, and pruning out diseased wood goes a long way toward prevention. In addition, the application of a fungicide is often needed to help control the disease.
If you are considering a new dogwood for your landscape, there are several disease-resistant species and hybrids available:
Cornus kousa, the Kousa Dogwood, blooms about a month later than our native species but has attractive white "flowers" that persist for up to 6 weeks. Pink fruit dangles like cherries and are a favorite of birds. Fall color is brilliant red.
"Stellar Series" are hybrid dogwoods developed by Dr. Elwin Orton of Rutgers University from a cross of Cornus florida and Cornus kousa. These hybrids are resistant to dogwood borers and powdery mildew as well as anthracnose. There are several cultivars available with different flower shapes and colors.
Watch Mark's video tips on growing dogwoods and some of the disease resistant hybrids.
Dogwoods perform best in bright shade but can tolerate full sun if the soil is kept moist. They prefer rich, moist, well-drained acidic soils. Mulch over the root zone to keep the roots cool and the soil evenly moist. Keep the mulch 3" from the trunk. Feed with Holly-tone in fall spring and fall. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers such as lawn fertilizers as these can inhibit flower formation.
Most species are hardy in Zone 6-8. C. kousa is hardy to Zone 5.