In Praise Of The Dogwood

If there would be only one tree allowed in my garden, it would be the native dogwood, Cornus florida. The set of seven trees, not all are visible in the above shot from April of 2008, on the steep slope behind the main house in shades of pink brighten our spirits as we step out the back door in the early morning. One of the trees has since died due to being completely engulfed with grapevines. They have grown larger and been limbed up to allow more light to the plantings underneath.

A tree from my childhood in Oklahoma, the dogwood leaf was always one collected for the yearly science project of identifying trees from their leaves. In fall, the color made them easily identifiable, as they turned varying shades of red, pink and purple, sometimes orange. The dogwood is one of the first trees to turn here in Southeast Tennessee, signaling the beginning of the leaf peeping season.

The Cornus florida in bloom is spectacular, but it is a four season tree.

Spring is when the music becomes a featured solo performance, with petals of white, pink or darker pink, sold as red. The edge of each petal is marked with an indentation that is said to represent the blood of Jesus on the cross at Easter. The bloom time is a marker of Dogwood Winter, when a cold snap passes over the Southeast at that time. Click here to read more about that.

In summer, the heavily veined leaves provide light shade as the fruits form. The red berries add to the beauty, before they are all devoured by ravenous birds, that is. Shade loving plants such as hostas and ferns thrive under Cornus florida, as well as many other plants.

The dogwood tree, Cornus florida is a deciduous native to the Eastern United States, hardy in USDA Zones 5-9, growing to thirty feet tall by twenty feet wide at maturity. It can be kept smaller with pruning. There can be multiple trunks or a single trunk. Spring flowers are white or pink, followed by red berries and brilliant red fall foliage. Wildlife friendly for the berries, the leaves are the larval host for the spring azure butterfly. It is recognized by the pollination ecologists as being attractive to large numbers of native bees.

Many mature dogwoods were lost to the dreaded anthracnose disease several years ago. Due to the millions, or possibly trillions of seeds held in the earth, young dogwood trees abound, many now reaching blooming size. Plant breeders discovered an anthracnose resistant stand of Cornus florida in Maryland and developed new cultivars from them that are now for sale. Appalachian Spring is one such cultivar. (The name is a link to a good article about it.) The trees growing in the Fairegarden were luckily spared by the devastating disease.

If you are looking for a native tree that is small garden friendly, do give the dogwood a chance. Look for the telltale minarets at the ends of the branches to be sure and get one that will flower for you the first year. Give it a partly sunny to full sun location, well drained acid soil, mulch to retain moisture, but no mulch volcanoes, please.

Seedlings will appear under flowering sized trees and are easily identified by the smooth, graceful branches and pointed leaf buds. They can be relocated most successfully when small. Many of the trees growing here are babies from our other Tennessee garden and are now large specimens. Not only is this a most wonderful and deserving tree to grow in a garden, it gives you free trees. That makes a Tightwad Gardener very happy.


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15 Responses to In Praise Of The Dogwood

  1. Mark and Gaz says:

    That’s a beautiful dogwood and some nice selection there. We’re particularly fond of the Chinese species in particular and they have such lovely habit and flowers.

    Thanks Mark and Gaz. The Cornus kousa is beautiful. The C. florida is a native here, growing in the woods and even along the interstate highways, blooming at the same time as the also native redbud trees. The pink or red ones are purchased, but all of the white ones here just showed up. I like that.

  2. Anne Boykin says:

    Frances, I love the native dogwoods too. Originally from California and now living in Georgia, I also love the river birch. So I don’t know if I can pick a favorite. I love the pictures of your beautiful garden and enjoy your blog.

    Thank you, Anne, for those kind words. That must have been a culture shock, going from CA to GA. We have a line of river birches along the lower part of the western property edge. They are amazing and the bark is beyond the pale. They grow very fast!

  3. I agree with you about the dogwood being at the top of the list in the “if I had to pick just one ” game (too cruel a sport for any gardener to actually be forced to play). I adore their spring blooms, of course, but I also really appreciate their early fall color and how long those deep burgundy leaves stay around to be enjoyed. And, then through the winter, the tree stays so appealing even in its bare naked condition because the branching is always so graceful.

    You have nailed it, Michaele. All of those reasons make it a four season tree that doesn’t get to big, is easy peasy to grow here and is readily available. All of mine have many seedlings underneath, free trees. What more could one want?

  4. Rose says:

    Such a beautiful tree! I am partial to flowering trees in the spring, but the dogwood is certainly one that looks every bit as good in the fall. By the way, I have always loved that first photo–it reminds me of a Monet painting.

    Thanks, Rose. I like trees that flower in spring, too. The dogwood is beautiful to me all the year, it calls my name! That is a favorite photo of the steep slope, it has never again looked that beautiful. Every photo is a never to be seen again event, since plants grow larger, some die out. It would make a nice painting.

  5. Dave says:

    They are a great tree for the garden! Some of the cultivars of the Korean dogwood that have been crossed with our native to make more disease resistant varieties have a drawback – sterility. They may not provide fruit for the birds or for the Tightwad Gardeners! They still offer the blooms and fall color though.

    Hi Dave, thanks for visiting. I like the kousas, too, but these natives have reached inside me and hold my heart. The baby trees that have grown to blooming size make me even more in love with them.

  6. Lola says:

    I love the dogwood. Sure wish I could grow one here. I remember driving to my birth home & seeing the dogwood in full bloom across Tenn. I like the pink so much. Our place in N.C. had oodles of them below the deck. So pretty.

    Hi Lola, thanks for stopping by. Seeing the dogwoods in the wild, both in spring and in fall when they are so easily recognizable, even at 70 mph, makes my heart sing.

  7. I just recently found your blog (through Pinterest) and I am totally impressed with your garden. I am a transplant from OH to TN and still adjusting to the red clay. Your flowers and photos are wonderful – thank you for sharing and inspiring a fellow TN gardener.

    Hi Sharon, thanks for visiting and welcome! The soil here may be red clay, but there are many, many plants that will grow very well in it. In fact, we have found the gardening here to be the easiest of any place we have lived. The plants just want to grow, despite what gardeners do to stop them. Plant lots of natives, what you see growing along the fields and roadsides and you can’t go wrong.

  8. Barbara H. says:

    This year I’ve noticed baby dogwoods popping up many places in my yard, often in inappropriate places! Guess I need to get busy moving them now that the weather is cooling off (thank goodness!). I also have many clusters of young ones in the woods – I can’t wait until they are big enough to start blooming. Love your garden, as always.

    Thanks Barbara. Good deal on the baby dogwoods! Be sure and try to get the whole root, it goes down very far, when you dig them. Plenty of the babies get pulled here, but many get left to grow on. I have a soft spot for them. When your first baby blooms, you will be near to bursting with pride!

  9. Roxann says:

    I have followed your blog for a year or so and find your information interesting and your pictures beautiful. But waking up this morning and seeing your first picture on this post of your upper steep slope with the dogwood trees to be absolutely breathtaking! What a beautiful garden and you are great photographer! I live at the beach in sunny Cali and your garden is something I can only dream of!

    Thank you, Roxann for those kind words. Living at the beach is wonderful, lucky you! The slope photo is one of my favorites, but to be honest, in the spring, a camera cannot capture the beauty here. I can barely stand to go inside the house then. Or most all the time, actually.

  10. Dee says:

    I have one, Cherokee Brave, I think. I bought it years ago, and it sits in my front garden. It never fails to delight me in spring and fall. In summer, I actually forget it’s there under the oak canopy. Then, it begins to glow brilliant red, and I am entranced. Thanks for the focus on our native dogwoods, Faire. They need good press.~~Dee

    Hi Dee, thanks for adding in here. I have Cherokee Princess, and smaller cultivar, white blooms that flowers when younger than the usual 7 years a seedling takes to get there. The dogwoods are all getting more gorgeous every day now, it’s what prompted this post.

  11. Diane says:

    Hi Frances, Diane again in B.C. Dogwood is our provincial flower and our streets and boulevards abound with lovely trees. In the early spring while on a bus, I saw an office building (concrete) where some creative planner had planted each floor with the pink dogwoods. You can imagine how stunning that was with a band of pink against the grey for six floors. Such a lovely tree.

    That sounds fabulous, Diane, thanks for sharing it! What a good choice to decorate a grey concrete building. Or just about any building, really. Cool!

  12. We are at the limit of Cornus florida hardiness here. I need to find one that is not only anthracnose resistant but from a northerly population.

    I hope you can find one that will work for you, Kathy. We had them in NE PA, not that far from you. They were too expensive for a young family’s budget at the time we lived there, though.

  13. I planted an Appalachian Spring dogwood this past May! I am very excited about it. Had to give it a lot of water during the drought. It is in dappled shade. Only thing I worry about is our soil is more alkaline here. Hope it is happy, because I can’t wait to see the flowers and berries – I’m guessing in 2014.

    I hope your new dogwood is happy, too. Any young tree or shrub needs extra water the first year or two. Good luck and here’s to flowers in 2014!

  14. Cornus florida is one of my favourite trees too, Frances, and this spring I was delighted to find that one of my own seedlings which flowered for the first time had bracts ever so lightly tinged with pink – so lightly in fact that by the time I got to photograph it four days later, they were all but white. I have two more bought in ones, one a deepish pink and one lighter, but none as dark as your close-up. And then of course several white ones. As they are all seed raised, none are named cultivars, and I know of only a handful of gardens in South Africa where they are grown – I think three smallish areas of the country, all in the mist belt of the escarpment but spread over 700 miles from one end to the other. Lovely to see them in their native habitat! Jack

    That is wonderful, Jack! I am so glad to hear that you are doing well with your dogwoods and even got some pink ones. The seedlings here, even from the darkest colors are still mostly white, but occasionally will begin with a blush before turning all the way white. I am proud of you!

  15. Your shots are lovely, showing the tree season by season. I appreciate anything that can look good over a long season in the garden.

    I always find it odd that our little native groundcover, Cornus canadensis, that grows only 6 inches tall, fits into the same genus,

    Thanks Shade, so nice to see you here. The dogwood truly is the four season tree, more beautiful in all seasons that most any other. To me, anyway. The little groundcover is so different, yet aren’t the leaves the same?

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