Native Plant of the Month: Flowering dogwood

Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, of the Cornaceae family, is native from southeastern Canada through the eastern United States, and into eastern Mexico. It is hardy to USDA zones 5-9. Its name, Cornus florida, stems from two words. Cornus is the Latin word for horn and is likely a reference to dogwood’s hard, dense wood. The second part, florida, comes from the Latin word for flowering. Flowering Dogwoods do best in acidic to neutral pH soils, and they prefer partial shade. Dogwoods are a deciduous, understory tree, only growing between 15-30ft, which means they naturally prefer growing underneath the canopies of larger shade trees. This means they generally receive filtered, rather than direct, sunlight.

These trees are tolerant of heat once established; however, they tend to have a more shallow root structure and are not extremely drought tolerant. They bloom in early spring before the tree’s leaves develop; usually in late March to mid-May. What many think of as flowers on a dogwood are actually leaves. The white, petal-like structures are actually modified leaves called bracts. Bracts surround the actual flowers which are greenish-yellow and are in small clusters of 20-30.

Flowering dogwood’s white bracts with the flower clusters in the center

Flowering dogwoods have stellar ornamental value, and its many cultivars are popular in landscapes. Flowering dogwoods are truly a year round interest tree; producing beautiful bracts in Spring, distinct leaves and branching throughout summer, reddish foliage and fruit in Autumn, and attractive branching and bark throughout winter.

Flowering dogwoods are the main host plant for spring azure caterpillars. Several insects visit dogwood flowers including specialized bees, beetles and flies. Their pollinated flowers produce bright red fruit; while often thought of as berries, they are actually drupes as the outer skin is hard, not soft. These drupes are a food source for many birds and mammals.

Flowering dogwood blooming in the spring garden

Ultimately, Flowering dogwoods distinguish themselves as one of our most beautiful native trees, brandishing a new spectacle in each season and providing an essential food source for so many insects, birds, and mammals. Wellfield displays several Flowering dogwoods throughout the Gardens. In late April to May, if you walk down the north promenade toward our spring garden they are quite hard to miss, gracefully towering over a sea of daffodils. Stay tuned for next month’s native plant of the month, and as always, we hope to see you in the Gardens!

Kyle Strain
Lead Horticulturist

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