Dogwood Rocks! A Tree For All Seasons

April 6, 2011 | By | Comments (21)

Dogwood 004

Although I suppose in Phoenix and Tucson, they have saguaro cactus tours and lava rock festivals, here in the South, there is one tree deserving of all the springtime adulation it gets — the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida).

In my Alabama neighborhood, it’s in full bloom now and while cherry trees and Japanese magnolias rival its show, neither can match the emotional response the dogwoods engender when they flower. Maybe it’s because they’re native and grow wild in our woods. But more than any other tree, for us they herald spring.

Four Seasons of Beauty

Grumpy learned this lesson in hort school and it still is true today — no ornamental flowering tree is so beautiful in so many seasons. In spring, clouds of cruciform blossoms of white, pink, or red (yes, red) adorn leafless branches. Though summer isn’t its best season, its layered branches and broad, rounded form give it a tidy and classic look.

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Autumn is high time for dogwood once again. Among the first trees to show fall color, its leaves turn scarlet to deep wine-crimson.

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And let’s nor forget the delightful red berries that turn bright red about the same time as the leaves change. They remain for as long as the birds will let them. I’ve seen flocks of hungry robins and cedar waxwings descend like storms on fruiting dogwoods. And heaven help you if you get between a mockingbird and a dogwood he considers “his.”

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Grumpy loves dogwood in winter too, for its biscuit-shaped flower buds, tiered lacy branches, and gray-brown, pebbled bark. A dogwood’s silhouette in winter is pure sculpture.

How to Grow Dogwood

Light: Dogwood grows fine in shade, but it won’t bloom there. For blooms, it needs at least a half-day of sun. For the heaviest bloom, plant it in full sun. Don’t let anyone tell you dogwoods won’t grow in full sun. I could point out all the prettiest dogwoods in my neighborhood and almost all grow in full sun.

Soil: Dogwood needs acid, moist, well-drained soil, preferably with some organic matter. If you’re soil is alkaline (above pH 7), don’t bother. Don’t assume that because you live east of the Mississippi, you automatically have acid soil. Thanks to buried limestone, plenty of places in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and Kentucky have alkaline soil. A soil test will reveal the pH of your soil.

Water: Dogwood has shallow roots and suffers readily during extended droughts. The surest sign is when the edges of its leaves scorch. To prevent this, dogwood needs a good soaking once a week in hot, dry weather. If its leave are wilted in the morning, it’s thirsty.

Where to plant: Flowering dogwood isn’t a fast grower, but over the years matures at 20 to 30 feet tall and wide depending on its location. It makes a superb lawn or understory tree and is also good for shading courtyards and patios. Don’t plant it where it will get a lot of radiated heat from pavement and masonry in the hot summer or it will scorch. It also doesn’t like polluted air and road salt.

Dogwood is hardy from the Upper Midwest down to the Gulf Coast, but don’t let the wide range fool you. Nursery-grown trees from the North do better in the North than ones grown in the South and vice-versa. So if you live in Ohio, plant a selection like ‘Spring Grove’ (it tolerates 25 degrees below zero). If you live in Tennessee or Alabama, try ‘Cherokee Princess’ or ‘Junior Miss’ (they take the Southern heat). The first two have white flowers; the third is pink.

How to plant: Do not buy balled-and-burlapped dogwoods! Most of their roots are cut off when they’re dug from the field. You won’t know this until you dig up your dead tree. Buy dogwoods grown in containers. Spring or fall planting is best. Dig a hole three times as wide the the root ball, but no deeper. Plant the tree so that the top of the root ball is a half-inch above the soil surface. Water thoroughly, then cover the top of the root ball with several inches of mulch.

Dogwood Problems

Healthy dogwoods have few problems. Stressed trees sometimes fall victim to borers that chew holes in the bark near the base of the tree. But most bark problems come from stupid people who mow or weed-whack too close to the tree and strip off the bark. Bye-bye, dogwood.

In recent years, a disease called anthracnose has been decimating dogwoods. Whenever a new disease like this pops up, I always suspect something in the environment is stressing trees, like several years of summer drought, etc. Anthracnose causes spots on the new leaves and flowers that eventually infect the twigs and lead to dieback and even death. Fungicide sprays can prevent anthracnose, but the best solution is to plant them in the open (full sun), as trees grown in moist shade seem most susceptible.

Why won’t your dumb dogwood bloom? The most common cause is planting in too much shade. The other is digging a tree from the wild that may bloom great or hardly at all. In the latter case, you’re much better off planting a named selection, such as the ones above, which are chosen for their profuse flowering. Other dogwoods Grumpy likes included Appalachian Spring’ (white flowers, disease resistant), ‘Cloud 9’ (white flowers, begins blooming at 3 feet tall), and ‘Pluribracteata’ (double white blooms).

Coming Up Next

Grumpy will take you on a visit to a country garden you will love.

COMMENTS

  1. Grumpy Gardener

    Marilyn,

    Dogwood is a shallow-rooted tree and intolerant of dry soil, so you must water in the summer time for it to do well. It also likes acid soil. If your soil is alkaline, you’ll need to sprinkle some garden sulfur around the tree to change it.

    August 2, 2016 at 1:12 pm
  2. Marilyn

    I live inland in Northern California where it is hot and dry in the summer. I’ve had a dogwood planted for the last 8 years and it hasn’t grown well. I think it hasn’t been getting enough water. Can you give me some insight please?

    August 2, 2016 at 1:09 pm
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  5. Steve Bender

    Sweet P,
    That’s a little far south, but it has a fighting chance. Make sure it has loose, fertile, well-drained soil and light shade in the afternoon.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:24 pm
  6. SweetP

    Just planted one today in full sun here in zone 8b. Does it has a fighting chance?

    October 25, 2012 at 10:17 am
  7. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Marco,
    Flowering dogwood is rated as cold-hardy to Zone 5 and you are in Zone 6, so it should be winter-hardy. What you need to do is make sure your tree was grown in the North or Midwest, not the South. Trees from northern growers are hardier. Also, while it does fine in the suburbs and countryside, it is not a good tree for city conditions, except in a place like Central Park. Any dogwoods there?

    June 18, 2012 at 10:47 am
  8. Marco

    Great article. Dogwood does not grow as far north as NYC which is too bad. I agree it marks the arrival of spring in the southern states.

    June 16, 2012 at 11:54 pm
  9. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Theresa,
    If that had happened to me, I would have demanded another tree. Be sure to tell the nursery what happened and keep your sales slip. If you tree does not make it, you should get a refund. In the meantime, keep it in the pot and let it grow that way until fall. Transplant it after the leaves drop.

    May 22, 2012 at 1:14 pm
  10. Theresa Robards

    I just bought a container grown Cherokee Princess and the boy who loaded it in my car lifted the tree by it’s trunk. Needless to say, it came partially out of the container,pulling up roots and leaving soil behind. Should I go ahead and transplant it now, or let it recuperate in the container until fall?

    May 20, 2012 at 11:39 am
  11. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    His Benevolence appreciates the substance of your arguments.

    April 10, 2011 at 7:11 am
  12. esh

    Fair point, Your Benevolence – the key is keeping them moist when it’s really hot. However, the reality is that the average homeowner won’t work on ensuring that happens. So better to caution them against the hot afternoon sun and give the plants a fighting chance in afternoon shade. 😉

    April 9, 2011 at 9:25 pm
  13. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Esh et al,
    Our dogwoods in Zones 7B & 8A grow in full sun just fine. And by full sun, I mean all-day sun. The key is keeping the soil moist around them when it’s really hot in summer. That is not to say that they don’t like light afternoon shade in summer. They do.
    And again, dogwood is not really a good choice for planting south of Zone 8.

    April 9, 2011 at 8:09 am
  14. esh

    The definition of “full sun” is 6+ hours of direct sun per day; it does not mean having to live in broiling afternoon Southern sun.
    Yes, dogwoods do better in “full sun” but they usually do BEST with protection from the late afternoon sun. And water is important, of course. The one I have next to a large red maple wilts almost every afternoon because that dang maple is sucking out all the water nearby!

    April 9, 2011 at 7:59 am
  15. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Henry,
    I think you’re a little far south for dogwood. Although it grows down to the Gulf Coast, it doesn’t really like it there. It seems to prefer Zone 8A north. Guess I shoulda made that clear.
    PC,
    I bet the care your trees get a lot better than the ones at the school. Anyone ever water the trees at school during the hot summer when school is out? Nope. Dogwood, as I said, is shallow-rooted and does not like drought. This is true for both dogwoods planted in sun and those planted in shade. Many dogwoods in the woods died during our last big summer drought.

    April 8, 2011 at 8:00 am
  16. pc

    The prettiest dogwoods (and the largest too) I’ve seen are in my own yard, planted under a canopy of red oaks. They’ve grown tall & healthy, and provide very Thomas Kinkade-ish type scenery in the spring. Dogwoods planted in full sun at my sons’ elementary school are short, disease ridden stunted type shrub trees with one exception- one that was planted in the same year as all the others but located under an oak tree. This one is much taller and healthy and beautiful. Not so sure full sun is healthy for these trees? Maybe it’s the soil that the oak leaves affect? Perhaps it’s a different variety than the dogwood-shrubby-bushes? Thoughts El Grumpo?

    April 7, 2011 at 6:06 pm
  17. east texas tree grower leone’

    you give a dogwood full sun in east texas and you have a stick in ground planted hundreds and very few survivors worth a flip seems to be a natural only cultivar that makes it.

    April 7, 2011 at 2:39 pm
  18. Henry H.

    Full Sun ehhhh???? Steve here is where I must respectfully disagree. While that may be the case for many, including yourself and other first hand accounts, all the ones here in SE Georgia struggle greatly in full sun. The sit chlorotic for most of the year and while they do bloom, the blooms are typically smaller(a quarter size vs. half-dollar or larger). Also I have noticed they seem more prone to lichen growth for whatever reason other than being stressed. Now we are at about the southern most border for Doggies if that plays a role……
    Also in addition to aracthnose problem, I have also noticed what appears to some type of blight affecting larger branches also. They will slowly turn necrotic as a whole before completley dying off. It looks a lot like either some sort of fire blight with a subtle mix of physostegia for good measure…..

    April 7, 2011 at 2:01 pm
  19. Stephen Dilley

    Great article, thanks for the info! I like to trim a few small branches of dogwood and put them in a tall vase.

    April 7, 2011 at 12:52 pm
  20. esh

    A gorgeous native tree – thanks for explaining it’s multi-season interest.

    April 6, 2011 at 4:05 pm
  21. Ashley

    Hi! Love you blog. Dogwoods, beautiful trees – they’re blooming all over the place right now! Random question. Are you currently visiting Charleston? I swear I just saw you on the corner of King and Broad. If so, have a wonderful vacation!

    April 6, 2011 at 3:43 pm

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