Dogwoods and Magnolias are in a dead heat as far as which is the most popular flowering tree for the front yard and yet, given their longer blooming time and ease of care, I think Dogwoods are the clear frontrunner. Add to this their dramatic autumn foliage, attractive fruits (with some of them being edible) and restrained growth habit; all of which broadens their seasonality and usefulness in the context of smaller urban gardens. To help guide you through your options I’ve created a species overview that highlights some of the better cultivars.
Eastern Dogwood (Cornus florida) This native of Eastern North America was one of the first to grace our gardens and is a common sight in older neighbourhoods. It averages about 20’ tall and gets just as broad with age, bearing distinct blossoms composed of four blunt bracts (which many consider petals) with notched tips surrounding the minuscule true flowers from April to May. The most common cultivar is Cornus florida f. rubra or the Pink Dogwood, followed by ‘Cherokee Princess’ (large white blooms), ‘Cherokee Chief’ (deep rose verging on red) and ‘Cherokee Brave’ (deep pink). The foliage often turns a crimson red in fall, a time when the gold-variegated cultivar ‘Rainbow’ (white flowers) really shines. Hardy to USDA Zone 5.
Cornus florida 'Cherokee Brave', Cornus florida 'Rainbow'
Chinese Dogwood (Cornus kousa) A species with several common names including Korean and Japanese Dogwood, which are true indicators of its natural range. Cornus kousa is quite disease resistant and features a distinct upright vase-shaped growth habit when young. They tend to be quite floriferous with star-shaped blooms composed of tapered bracts that emerge in late spring after Eastern Dogwood, often followed by heavy crops of pinkish-red rounded 1” fruits which are edible but somewhat mealy – in any case, the birds seem to like them. The pink-flowered version of this species, ‘Satomi’, is probably the most popular cultivar, followed closely by Cornus kousa var. chinensis and ‘Milky Way’, which both smother themselves in white blossoms. White variegated forms such as ‘Wolf Eyes’ or the improved ‘Samaritan’ provide foliar interest, as does ‘Summer Gold’. This species broadens with age, maturing at around 20’ tall in cultivation and also features exfoliating mottled bark and reddish-purple autumn tones. Hardy to USDA Zone 5.
Cornus kousa fruit, Cornus kousa 'Satomi', Cornus kousa 'Summer Gold',
Cornus kousa var. chinensis
Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas) A somewhat underutilized Dogwood that smothers itself in clusters of tiny yellow blossoms before the leaves emerge, in March. It is native to Europe and Western Asia and matures at 15-20’ tall. The most common ornamental cultivar is ‘Golden Glory’ (more erect and vigorous), although variegated forms (which occasionally scorch in hot sun exposures) such as ‘Aurea Elegantissima’ (golden edge) and ‘Variegata’ (white margins) are occasionally found. The red fruits or drupes are edible (taste like cranberry and sour cherry) and are used to make jams, sauces and liqueurs. Hardy to USDA Zone 4.
Cornus mas fruit, Cornus mas 'Golden Glory'
Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii, 40-60’ tall) While the Pacific Dogwood is our provincial flower in BC, it is also rarely seen as it has fallen prey to an introduced fungus, anthracnose. So, your best choice here are Cornus nuttallii hybrids such as ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ (florida x nuttallii, 25’ tall) which very much resembles Pacific Dogwood with its cascading branch habit and large white blooms. Two newer hybrids to consider are ‘Venus’ (massive 6” wide flowers, 20’ tall) and ‘Starlight’ (very disease resistant, 30’ tall), both of which were bred with Cornus kousa. Pacific Dogwood and ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ are hardy to Zone 7, while ‘Venus’ and ‘Starlight’ are rated for USDA Zone 6.
Cornus x 'Eddie's White Wonder', Cornus nuttallii
Hybrid Dogwoods (Cornus x rutgersensis) These florida x kousa hybrids were developed by Rutgers University for superior disease resistance. Common cultivars include ‘Stellar Pink’ (20’ tall, also comes in a variegated form), ‘Aurora’ (white, 18’ tall), ‘Stardust’ (large bracts, 12’ tall) and the stunning gold variegatedCelestial Shadow’ (20’ tall). All are Zone 5 hardy and are sterile.
Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia & controversa) Both these species have a distinct tiered growth habit paired with smaller white flower clusters, similar to shrubby dogwoods. The variegated forms are particularly stunning and include C. alternifolia ‘Golden Shadows’ (12’ tall) and ‘Argentea’ (15’ tall), as well as C. controversa ‘Variegata’ (40’ tall). The latter is Zone 6, while ‘Golden Shadows’ and ‘Argentea’ are hardy to USDA Zone 3.
Cornus x 'Celestial Shadow', Cornus controversa 'Variegata'
General Care – The most important factor when placing dogwoods is to choose a site with good drainage, but evenly moist soil. Planting too deep is another common problem, so make sure the root flare is right at the soil level or you may encounter problems with collar rot. Here in coastal BC, a part to full sun exposure is fine with the exception of the variegated forms of Pagoda Dogwoods and Cornus mas, which should be protected from hot afternoon sun to prevent foliar scorch. Fertilize in March and again in late June to early July, using a fertilizer with a 3-1-2 ratio. Dogwoods should be pruned for dead or diseased wood and crossing branches in late winter, while overextended branches can be lightly headed immediately after flowering.
All Images Copyright 2021 MK Lascelle