The white blooms of flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) are so emblematic of spring that it can be easy to overlook the charms this native tree exhibits during other times of the year. In fact, autumn is one of the tree’s most lovely seasons. The fall foliage colors of flowering dogwood can be quite stunning and variable, with hues ranging anywhere from dark burgundy to scarlet red to vibrant orange.
Just as the foliage begins to exhibit a flush of fall color, the fleshy, oval berries turn a bright, shiny red. These showy fruits are borne in small clusters at the tips of the branches and add an ornamental quality to the tree. The fruits are high in fat content and are an important food source for many birds, making a dogwood tree an excellent feature in a wildlife habitat garden.
In fall and winter, you will also see the pea-sized, light brown flower buds that have already formed for the following spring’s bloom season. Though dogwoods rarely require pruning, if such trimming is necessary, to prevent cutting off flower buds, prune in late spring after the tree has finished flowering and before the buds have formed.
Even in winter when the tree is bare of its foliage, the dogwood makes a beautiful statement in the landscape. The form is often quite graceful, with a rounded crown and arching, tiered branches. It may grow as a single- or multi-trunked tree. The bark on mature trees is broken into square, scaly blocks with a distinctive, rough texture similar to alligator hide.
If you wonder where the dogwood got its common name, there are numerous possibilities. I heard from one esteemed botanist that the name comes from the fact that the sturdy wood was used in the textile industry to make shuttles, sometimes called “dogs.” Other sources say it is because the wood was used to make meat skewers, called “doggers” in Old English (similar to our modern term “daggers”). In either case, the common name attests to the utility of the tree and the strength of its wood. It has also been a popular wood for golf club heads, chisel handles, and mallets.
What we think of as dogwood blooms are actually large bracts that surround small clusters of yellowish green, rather insignificant flowers. In addition to the standard white form, there are also selections in the nursery trade that bear pink bracts. The bracts appear before the foliage leafs out, making the floral display all the more striking. In their natural habitats, flowering dogwoods are found in woodlands throughout the eastern United States, where they most often occur as understory trees in open, semi-shaded areas or along the edges of woodlands. They can be found growing from southern Maine to Florida and as far west as parts of Texas.
The flowering dogwood is easy to incorporate into the home landscape. It usually grows only 15 to 30 feet tall, making it appropriate for most any size garden. Though it is tolerant of sun or shade, it appreciates protection from the harsh, hot afternoon sun. The tree will perform best in a slightly acidic soil with ample organic matter. It will not tolerate poorly drained soils or extreme drought. Dogwood roots are rather shallow, so the tree may suffer during dry periods, and it will appreciate a layer of mulch to keep the soil cool and moist.
If you want to add a dogwood to your garden, fall is an excellent time to plant. You will find numerous cultivars available at nurseries. Selections have been made regarding flower size and color, fall foliage color, foliage variegation, growth habit, and disease resistance. Some cultivars are crosses of our native Cornus florida and the Asian C. kousa. By incorporating a dogwood into your landscape, you will appreciate the four seasons of beauty this native tree provides, and as a bonus, the birds will appreciate the berry banquet.
UGA/Cherokee County Master Gardeners are offering a free digital zoom presentation Improving Home Curb Appeal on Friday, Oct. 29, from noon to 1:30 p.m. Valuable information to make your landscape the envy of your neighborhood. Instruction for establishing, rethinking, and enhancing your home landscape. Learn the techniques and secrets that will maximize the curb appeal of your home. Join us for an in-depth informative online seminar presented by one of our amazing Master Gardeners. Register at the Cherokee County Master Gardner website https://cherokeemastergardeners.com.