For so small a tree, often no taller than 25 feet, the dogwood holds a large place in the American imagination. This round, densely crowned tree is considered by many to be the very symbol of spring, with its magnificent white or pink blossoms. To others, it is simply the most spectacular flowering tree in America.
Despite the beauty of its spring blossoms, which appear between late March and mid-May, dogwood’s glorious
petals are actually modified leaves known as bracts. But this distinction is of little importance to those who enjoy their showy spring color. The durable blossoms last for three or four weeks, and the scarlet berries that follow them can linger into the winter, when they are most valued by wildlife. The dogwood’s lustrous green summer leaves give way to brilliant scarlet fall foliage, and even in winter the dogwood’s dark, patterned bark offers unique beauty. The dogwood is also distinguished by its broad natural range, and by being as at home in a natural forest as it is in the home landscape. Eleven species of dogwood are native to the United States, though many are shrubby. They can be found throughout the continental United States.
The Dogwood’s Place in History
Americans have long loved the dogwood. George Washington planted it at Mount Vernon, as did Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Early Native Americans made medicinal teas from its bark, and desperate Civil War doctors used this tea as a quinine substitute. The tree’s extremely hard wood also found important uses as weavers’ shuttles and in golf club heads, the handles of chisels and mauls, and even as wedges and yokes. But for countless Americans today, the dogwood needs no greater purpose than the remarkable beauty it brings forests and homes.
Some Common Species
The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a favorite among gardeners, just as it is an amiable companion along thousands of miles of American highways. It is loved for its three-to-five-inch blossoms, its small, graceful form, and its year-round beauty. As well as growing throughout the eastern states from New England to Florida, its range extends west through southern Michigan and the eastern and southern edges of Illinois, Missouri, and eastern Oklahoma and Texas. Lately it has been severely threatened by the disease dogwood anthracnose, which can weaken and even kill entire trees. (Grows in hardiness zones 5 to 9.)
The Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) is native to the mountains that run from the Northwest through southern California and is distinguished by usually having six bracts instead of the more common four to its blossoms. Also unusual is the occasional second blossom the Pacific dogwood produces in the fall, adding to the tree’s spectacular gift of color. (Grows in hardiness zones 7 to 10.)