Plant Profiles Pacific Dogwood

The Pacific Dogwood, also known as the Western Flowering Dogwood, is a beautiful tree that is native to the Pacific Northwest.  Known botanically as Cornus nuttallii, it can be found in deciduous and mixed forests from Southern California all the way north to the southern end of British Columbia.  John James Audubon named this tree in honor of Thomas Nuttall, who discovered the tree as a distinct species.  Audubon also depicts the tree in his famous work, Birds of America.

The Pacific Dogwood will reach a height of 50 feet and a width of 10-15 feet.  It is often multi-trunked and has a smooth textured brown bark.  The canopy of the tree is rounded and the leaves are a medium green in color, with the distinctive pointed tip and the characteristic parallel leaf veining that all dogwood trees share.  The flowers of the Pacific Dogwood are a greenish-white, tiny, and formed in tight clusters.  The surrounding bracts, which are often mistaken for petals, are white and can number from 4 to 6.  In the fall, clusters of red fruit develop from the flower cluster giving it the appearance of red berries of 1-1.5 inches in diameter.  As it is a deciduous tree, the leaves of the Pacific Dogwood will turn a lovely orangy-pink before falling. 

Although similar at first glance, the Pacific Dogwood and the Eastern Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) share many differences.  Eastern Flowering Dogwoods have fewer bracts, usually only four at the most, surrounding the flower clusters.  Pacific Dogwoods are usually only found in one color, white, and have not been cultivated to the extent that the Eastern Flowering Dogwood has.  The Eastern Flowering Dogwood can be found in white, pink, red and even with variegated leaves.

Unfortunately, populations of the Pacific Dogwood are continuously being bombarded by a fungal disease known as dogwood anthracnose which is caused by the Discula destructiva species of fungi.  The origins of this disease are unknown but it not only affects Pacific Dogwoods but Eastern Flowering Dogwoods as well.  Asian species of dogwood such as Cornus kousa are more resistant to the disease and efforts are being made to introduce the genetics of this species and other resistant dogwood species into the American species.  The disease can also be treated with a combination of fungicides and proper management of water and debris accumulation around susceptible trees.   

Pacific Dogwoods were used extensively by the Native Americans.  Bows, arrows, hooks and handles were fashioned from the wood of the tree.  The bark, due to its high tannin content, was boiled and used to make a dark brown dye.  The bark was also used to make medications such as blood purifiers, lung strengtheners, and to help with stomach ailments. 

The Pacific Dogwood, like other beautiful species of trees found in the Western United States, is a feast for the eyes at any time of the year.  It would be a great shame if this noble species of tree were to vanish from the Pacific Northwest.  Hopefully, with education and responsible management, this tree will continue to survive and thrive for the enjoyment of future generations.