Plant Profiles Flowering Dogwood

The Flowering Dogwood is one of the most sought after native America trees for gardens and landscapes.  Native to Eastern North America and known botanically as Cornus florida, the Flowering Dogwood produces a beautiful show in all four seasons. 

The Flowering Dogwood species will grow to a height of 40 feet and will spread to a width of 25-30 feet.  A deciduous tree, it is found growing among other deciduous and evergreen trees in mixed forests.  The bark of the tree is visually appealing as it is a rusty brown in color and forms square shaped patterns as it cracks with age.  The most notable characteristic of this tree is its colorful and showy bracts.  Bracts are often confused with petals.  The difference is that petals are actually part of the flower while bracts are modified sepals that surround clusters of numerous tiny flowers.  The bracts of the Flowering Dogwood come in pure white, pink, and red.  The actual flowers are a light to medium green and will give rise to red berry-like fruits. 

Around the same time as the flowers are emerging, which is usually in mid-spring, medium green leaves with pointed tips emerge.  Characteristic of all dogwoods, the Flowering Dogwood leaves possess parallel veining that is an unmistakable trait of the genus Cornus.  In the fall, the leaves turn bright shades of pink, orange and red and compete with other trees such as Red Maples (Acer rubrum) for the best fall show.  It is also at this time that the tiny fruits mature to strawberry-like red clusters, which are very enticing to hungry birds. 

A number of cultivars and hybrids have been created using the Flowering Dogwood for ornamental use in gardens all over the world.  One of the most notable is a hybrid called ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ which is a hybrid between the Flowering Dogwood and the Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii), the native dogwood of Western North America.  ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ possesses traits from both dogwood species but has much larger white bracts than either of its parent.  Being a hybrid, this tree is not fertile and can only be propagated by grafts or cuttings.  Other notable cultivars of the Flowering Dogwood are ‘Cherokee Chief’ which has dark red bracts, ‘Cherokee Daybreak’ which is a variegated leaved tree, and ‘Spring Song’ which has beautiful pink bracts.  The Flowering Dogwood has also been crossed with the Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa), which is an Asian species that blooms later in the spring and has very large bracts.

Flowering Dogwoods grow best in acidic soil in either full sun or partly shaded by larger trees.  They will not bloom if kept in heavy shade and their growth may become stretched and awkward as they reach for any available light.  Flowering Dogwoods will grow in USDA zones 5-8 and some of the hybrids and cultivars may be more or less sensitive to extremes beyond these specified zones. 

The Flowering Dogwood is not only a beautiful American native but is also highly prized for its ornamental value.  With its colorful bracts, beautiful bark, and dazzling fall foliage, this tree is worthy of a position in the garden where it can be viewed and enjoyed at all times of the year.