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Flowering Dogwood

Virginia’s state flower and tree

April 2024

Flowering dogwood and eastern redbud in the fog. (Courtesy Virginia State Parks via Flickr)

by Steve Carroll, Contributing Columnist

Flowering dogwood is a small tree that makes a dramatic and much-admired statement in early spring. The Virginia Native Plant Society named it their 2018 Flower of the Year, and in “Native Plants of the Southeast,” author and horticulturist Larry Mellichamp calls dogwood “the overall most beloved and planted deciduous tree of the South.”

Cornus florida is an important understory, forest-edge and roadside tree from southern Maine to northern Florida, and west to Michigan, Missouri, eastern Texas and northeastern Mexico. It reaches 6 to 8 inches in diameter, up to 30 feet in height, and is often wider than tall. It prefers moist, acidic soil with afternoon shade, growing somewhat reluctantly along hot city streets.

This tree is most striking in spring when its floral display complements that of the eastern redbud. It is easily recognized from a distance by its large “flowers.” In truth, its yellow-green flowers are quite small, with 20 or more clustered tightly together. But each flower cluster is surrounded by four attractive white (sometimes pink) petal-like structures that are modified leaves called bracts — and it is these inch- to inch-and-a-half-long bracts that catch the eye.

Flowering dogwood and eastern redbud in Shenandoah National Park. (Courtesy E. Knepley)

Due to its early flowering, dogwood is an important spring nectar source for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. The leaves, which emerge with or just after the flowers, are eaten by dozens of moth and butterfly species.

Dogwood leaves grow in pairs along branches, are 3-6 inches long, and have distinctive veins that curve along the leaf margin. They add to autumn’s color by turning a rich red to burgundy. Dogwood’s bright-red fruits also ripen in the fall, and these are prized by songbirds and small mammals such as chipmunks, foxes and skunks.

Flowering dogwood is most appreciated during the growing season, but it’s also attractive in winter. At that time, mature trees display dark, blocky bark; horizontal branches; and the distinctive, onion-shaped flower buds of next year’s flowers.

Because the wood is hard and heavy, it was used in the manufacture of golf club heads, mauls, mallets and tool handles. It was particularly important in the textile industry in the manufacture of shuttles used in mechanical looms.

Medicinally, the bark was used by Native Americans throughout the region for treating malaria. Colonists also used it, often steeped in whiskey or other liquids, to treat malaria and “the shakes.” At one time, the decorative flower clusters were widely cut and displayed. This destructive practice was eventually stopped, in part by a widespread poster campaign spearheaded by the Wild Flower Preservation Society (a group organized in 1925 in Washington). Today, dogwood is most widely used and appreciated as a landscape tree, with many cultivated varieties that feature modified bracts, increased heat tolerance, weeping branches, resistance to disease and other characteristics.

If dogwood has a weakness, it is its susceptibility to dogwood anthracnose, a fungal disease that has killed millions of dogwood since its introduction in the 1970s. Fortunately, if planted in appropriate habitats with access to sun and good air circulation, and pruned and cared for correctly, trees will often grow quite happily. The nursery trade also now offers anthracnose-resistant cultivars.

Do you have space in your yard for a small tree? Are you looking for a native species with a four-season appeal? Flowering dogwood may be just the tree you are looking for.

Steve Carroll is a botanist and ecologist who speaks and writes about trees, gardening and the world of plants. He is the co-author of “Ecology for Gardeners,” published by Timber Press.