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Falling for Dogwood

Cornus florida in berry at HCCYou may be wondering ‘Why write an article about dogwoods now?  Why not wait until spring, when they are in their blooming splendor?’  Dogwoods are typically known and beloved for their beautiful spring flowers.  But dogwoods have another season of beauty, Fall.

Dogwoods have much to offer in Fall, from their leaves which bestow warm, burnished tones, to their fantastic berries, which depending on the species, could be nearly any color.  The dogwood family contains a number of trees and shrubs that are native to our area.  There is even a dogwood that is a wildflower.  You can always tell a dogwood by its signature leaves; long, pointed ovals, wavy with deep veins.  Even the smallest member of the family, the wildflower bunchberry, Cornus canadensis, possesses those leaves, but in miniature form.

Most dogwoods are relatively carefree and easy to grow.  And all of them have different attributes that make them stellar residents of the garden.  In addition, all dogwoods have more than one season of interest, which make them a particularly valuable landscape family of plants, especially for many gardens which lack the room and need plants to carry their weight in landscape appeal.

By far, the most popular member, and one of our most prized native plant is the flowering dogwood, Cornus florida.  Clad in brilliant, ‘four-petaled’ white ‘flowers’, nothing says spring quite like a dogwood in bloom.  Of course, the ‘white flowers’ are not flowers at all, but are bracts that frame the small, green inconspicuous flowers in the center.  Just like the famous holiday standby, the Poinsettia, it is the bract surrounding the flowers that is striking.

As if the bloom in spring were not enough, flowering dogwood has many other worthwhile traits.  Perfect for smaller yards, flowering dogwoods typically grow to about 25-feet tall.  Some cultivated varieties are even smaller.  But don’t pass up the dogwood even if you have an expansive garden.  In either case, they make fantastic trees grouped under larger trees, grouped together, or planted as a specimen tree in a bed filled with other spring-bloomers.

Cornus Florida Rubra - Fall Leaves

Cornus Florida Rubra - Fall Tree

My favorite time for the flowering dogwood begins in late summer when nearly every limb, as if by magic, and seemingly overnight, holds clusters of fire-engine red berries.  As if making an announcement on the loudspeaker, the foliage decides to banish its green cloak in exchange for warmer tones that warm our hearts in times of falling temperatures.  Depending on how much sun they get; flowering dogwoods can turn to a deep burgundy-purple resembling a luxurious velvet coat.  The combination of red berries and foliage has an important wildlife function.  Called “foliar fruit flagging”, the leaf color helps migrant birds to notice the trees and find the berries.  In return for the dogwood’s hospitality, the birds carry off the seeds and deposit them along their migratory route, forming new colonies miles away, thus ensuring the future perpetuation of the plant.

Flowering dogwood is not only popular among people, but also popular among many types of wildlife.  Many birds are attracted to dogwood berries.  Some resources claim that nearly 90 species of birds consume them.  In fact the berries are so popular among the birds; you may find an entire flock visiting one tree and eating all of the berries within a short period of time.  The berries are high in fat and a rich source of calcium, and therefore high in energy.  The birds that you may find flocking to your dogwood may include cedar waxwings, bluebirds, robins, flickers, thrushes, cardinals, and mockingbirds.  Some birds, which are more rarely seen in yards and therefore more sought out by birdwatchers, may also decide to visit the dogwood.  They include warblers, grosbeaks, tanagers, and vireos.  In addition, small mammals are attracted to the fruit.  You may find chipmunks, squirrels, foxes and cottontail rabbits coming to your yard for a treat.

The native species of Cornus florida is also a host plant to a number of interesting moths and the beautiful, petite Spring Azure butterfly caterpillar.  This tiny jewel boasts bright blue hues on a wingspan of less than an inch, like a tiny violet in flight.  The blue color of the Spring Azure becomes less intense as the summer progresses and some butterflies can be nearly white by summer’s end.  Perhaps that is a sort of survival adaptation or a form of camouflage.  Adult Spring Azures, along with dozens of other pollinators, will enjoy sipping the sweet nectar.  They will also provide food, in the form of themselves, for the spring migrating birds.

There are a number of cultivated varieties of flowering dogwood to consider.  ‘Cherokee Princess’ sports extra large white flower bracts that are really striking in the spring garden.  ‘Cherokee Brave’ has extra large pink flower bracts, which create a great background for pink tulips, yellow daffodils, and of course, our native purple-blue Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica).  Cornus florida rubra is the pink-flowering twin to Cornus florida, sporting pink to red flower bracts which completely envelope the tree in spring.  ‘Cherokee Daybreak’ and ‘Cherokee Sunset’ are both varieties with variegated leaves that don’t tend to scorch in the heat of summer.  And there are many other cultivars that are worth adding to your garden.

In the recent past, our forests used to be filled with dogwoods, most of which were only noticeable by the casual observer when they were in bloom.  However, a fungal disease, anthracnose, brought here accidentally from a foreign country has nearly annihilated the entire wild population.  It seems the worst is over.  Most dogwoods that grow wild today may actually possess a gene that resists this disease.  And there is hope that the wild population may recover somewhat in the near future.  This is good news, because the flowering dogwood is an important plant to our local ecology.

Gardeners should not be overly concerned about anthracnose in their yards.  We tend to pamper our garden residents by providing extra water, more light, and better air circulation than Mother Nature does.  Dogwoods are less susceptible to disease if planted in sunnier locations and given a drink during periods of drought.  Pruning dead or diseased limbs and disposing of them in the trash is a good practice that is helpful for any shrub or tree.  I have several dogwoods, some in sun, some in part or full shade.  All look healthy and produce flowers and berries reliably.

Other members of the dogwood family are worth their weight in gold in the landscaped yard.  All dogwoods sport the inconspicuous flowers with the attractive bracts that look like white ‘blossoms’ in early spring.  Although their bracts are not as showy as the flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, their ‘blossoms’ are still very pretty and resemble viburnum blooms.  But wait for the real show in Fall, when leaves and berries compete for attention.

The alternate-leaved dogwood, also called Pagoda dogwood, is a fantastic multi-stemmed small tree, growing to about 15 feet tall.  [Behnke Nurseries’ Buyer’s Note: not currently in stock; we hope to have them in mid-Spring.] Creamy white, fragrant ‘blooms’ adorn the horizontal branches (resembling the architecture of the Pagoda, thus the common name Pagoda dogwood).  But in autumn, this dogwood decides to really shine.  Berries ripen early, starting as little green spheres, then turning pink, then bright pink, until finally settling on a dark blue resembling the ocean before a storm.  Usually all these colors are present at the same time on one tree, producing a riot of color.  The little stems that hold the juicy berries, called cymes, are bright red, announcing to birds and mammals it’s dinnertime, like a bell ringing on a farmstead.  At least 34 species of birds eat the fruit, but the downy woodpecker, cedar waxwing, and bluebird call this berry their favorite treat.  Alternate-leaved dogwoods are not susceptible to anthracnose and are very cold tolerant.

Cornus racemosa is a lesser known dogwood, but is actually one of my personal favorites.  [Behnke Nurseries’ Buyer’s Note: not currently in stock; we hope to have these in mid-Spring as well.] Gray dogwood is its common name, so called because of its smooth gray bark.  This dogwood is a little less refined than its other cousins, having a looser, less formal habit.  Gray dogwood is a smaller shrub, growing to less than 8 feet tall.  Its branches are slim and numerous, its leaves are smaller, giving this dogwood a finer textured appearance.  Under-planting gray dogwood with bolder-leaved perennials, such as hostas, lambs ears (Stachys), native gingers (Asarum canadense), or false forget-me-nots (Brunnera) would make an attractive combination.

This dogwood also has the nice creamy white blooms in spring that are a favorite of pollinators (and pollinator-eating birds!).  But it is worth the wait until early Fall, when the leaves become purple-maroon and highlight the unusual snow-white berries hanging from arresting red stems.  Gray dogwoods like to form wide clumps, so give them some room and then stand back.  Gray dogwoods are tolerant of dry soils and besides a quick spray from the hose during an extended drought, require nothing else, except the camera you’ll need for taking photos of all those unusual white berries before the birds get them.  The berries are a preferred fruit of catbirds, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, robins, and bluebirds.  Gray dogwood is also a host to the white-marked tussock moth caterpillar.  Which, as an adult, the female lacks wings, probably so that she can’t get away from the male!

So don’t forget to try a number of different dogwoods in your garden this autumn.  It is a great time to plant woody plants until the end of November.  Come next Spring and again next Fall, you’ll be glad you did.  And the birds, mammals, and butterflies will love you for it.

By Natalie Brewer
University of Maryland Extension Howard County Master Gardener

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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