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The Monday Garden
Great Americans: Dogwood

Issue No. 111 - May 9, 2004
by Sue Sweeney

May was once known here as the “Flowering Moon”. Flowering shrubs enjoyed in pre-Columbian times included shad (serviceberry), crabapple, and our wonderful flowering dogwood (cornus floridia).

picture: a classic cornus florida in full flower, Revonah, Stamford CT. May 2004

Ah, flowering dogwood, so photogenic and needing such little care if properly situated and well established – no pruning, spraying, raking. Cornus florida’s native range extends from Ontario to Mexico; and it’s North Carolina’s state flower. Horticulturists say that flowering dogwood “almost over used” locally but who’s complaining?

Certainly not the birds and bees.

Flowering dogwood’s handsome red fruit, maturing mid-fall, is poisonous to humans. However, here’s a short list from the US Forest Service of the critters who make the fruit a late season favorite: northern cardinal, tufted titmouse, towhee, grosbeak, thrasher, bluebird, junco, pileated woodpecker, red-headed woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker, wild turkey, crow, grackle, starling, eastern chipmunk, white-footed mouse, gray fox, gray squirrel, black bear, beaver, white-tailed deer, and skunk. Meanwhile beaver, rabbits, and deer browse the winter branches.

According to the Forest Service, “the fruit is particularly important to the American robin. Flocks often move from the forest edge to the interior as berries are depleted”.

Sadly, for the robins, cornus florida is dying out in the wild due a fungus infection (an anthracnose) that came into the USA with foreign dogwood stock in the 1990’s. It’s predicted that most of the wild dogwood will be gone in 20 years. (And what will poor Robin do then, poor thing?) The fungus is not as likely to strike plants living in the open with more sun so most of the yard stock is safe. If this doesn’t convince you to buy only native plants, I don’t know what will.


picture: Morgan Street alley, Stamford CT May 2004

While we need to be careful of monocultures (too many of a single kind of plant) since they foster diseases like this killer, you can, and probably should, continue to plant flowering dogwood, if your area’s not already overrun with dogwood-mad householders. However, keep in mind that we’re being urged to refrain from planting any kind of dogwood near wild stands of flowering dogwood as the new plants are potential anthracnose carriers.

Also, to assure yourself care-free plants, avoid planning cornus florida in full sun as that encourages its other main pest, the twig borer, and makes the little trees more prone to drought and winter damage. Too much shade will foster the anthracnose. So find a nice morning sun location with moist, well-drained, slightly acid soil, and plenty of mulch, and you’ll have a happy little tree. Flowering dogwood’s not supposed to like salt (e.g. from roads), urban pollution, drought and flooding, but there are many in my neighborhood that seem to handle these things just fine. In fact the only problem that established dogwoods in my neighborhood seem to have is large patches of missing buds as a result of hungry squirrels during this past extra-cold winter.


picture: Morgan Street alley, Stamford CT February 2004


picture: Morgan Street alley, Stamford CT March 2004


picture: Morgan Street alley, Stamford CT April 2004


picture: Morgan Street alley, Stamford CT May 2004

Human uses: In past times, tea brewed from flowering dogwood bark was used as a quinine substitute to reduce fevers. The plant contains cornine which is used medicinally in parts of Mexico today. Some Native Americans made a scarlet dye from the roots. The wood is exceptional strong, and thus good for making small, hard objects such as tool handles and knitting needles.

Relatives: The cornus family has about 50 members worldwide, most native to North America or Eastern Asia. About half of them are available for sale in the USA.

The European cornus you’re most likely to see is the lovely Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas), with yellow flowers in the earliest part of spring with the witch hazels. The Asian dogwood most common in much of North America is the Japanese or Korean Dogwood (Cornus kousa) which flowers about a month after our native cornus florida.

Some notable native dogwoods:

The Bunchberry (Cornus Canadensis) is a ground cover version of the flowering dogwood, with similar flowers and berries but it only gets 9” tall. . It is hardy to, amazingly, Zone 2. By way of comparison, Cornus florida can get winter damage in Zone 5.

Red Osier dogwood (Cornus sericea or stolonifera) is the very popular one with the red stems in winter. It’s also hardy to Zone 2 and tolerates swampy conditions but also handles drought when established. Like many North American dogwoods, it has a flat cluster of white flowers (kind of like Queen Ann’s Lace). Its berries are white to gray. The birds like the berries; humans use the branches for basket making. It usually stays small – under 10 feet.

The Alternate Leaf Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) is hardy Zones: 3 to 7, grows 20 feet highin sun or shade, has yellowish-white flower clusters and bluish-black fruit (common with native dogwoods); older trees have striped bark. Fall leaf color is deep red. Birds and small mammals eat the berries. The twigs are markedly not deer- or rabbit-proof.


picture: Dentists’ office 3rd and Bedford Streets, Stamford CT May 2004





P.S. Cornus Florida has alligator-like bark

From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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