Eastern Dogwood, Western Dogwood, Tallest to Smallest

Dogwoods aren’t just a subtle hint; they’re a screaming reminder that we’re on the fast track to a full-blown and beautiful Puget Sound springtime. The flowering dogwoods put on their spectacular show right after the short burst of color from ornamental cherry and plum trees. Dogwoods have a longer bloom cycle than cherries and plums. Dogwood blooms last about a month and transition us from the dark of winter to the newness and lightness of spring.

Eastern dogwood (Cornus florida) and Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) are the ones most often seen dotted around South Sound home gardens. All dogwoods (Cornus spp) except C. capitata are deciduous. The large showy flower-like parts are really bracts (think poinsettia). The true flowers are the tiny bits at the center of the bracts.Both C. florida and C. kousa can have white bracts but if the bracts start out pink, it’sC. florida,, usually “Cherokee Chief”. The beautiful white bracts (oh, heck, let’s call them flowers) of the C. kousa fade to a pale pink. In springtime dusk, the creamy white of the C. kousa seems to glow while the darker pink of the C. florida virtually disappears in the fading light. Pink dogwoods are beautiful but the white ones are much showier in early spring when daylight is at a premium. C. florida blooms a few weeks earlier than C.kousa.

Both C. florida and C. kousa reach heights of 15 –20 feet with dense round habits. They are slow growers so they need all the help they can get to feel at home. Give them an eastern or northern exposure away from drying winds. They love our slightly acid soil and need to be planted where the earth is moist and well drained. Mulch year round to keep weeds to a minimum. Mulching also keeps the lawnmower and the two legged “weed whacker” away from the trunk. Don’t prune them unless branches are broken diseased or dieing. The little knobs on the ends of the branches are next year’s flower buds so if you absolutely have to prune, do it right after they bloom; otherwise you have wiped out next year’s flower display. The flowering dogwoods are good backdrops to rhododendrons, azaleas and spiraeas and make a good canopy for late daffodils and tulips. The pink varieties of C. florida are tempting but the best flowering dogwood for Puget Sound gardeners is C. kousa, which comes in a vast array of white. You may lose the pretty pink flowers but the trade-off is not worrying about dogwood anthracnose, a disease that strikes both eastern (C. florida) and western (C. nuttallli) native dogwoods. Picture leaves that look like they have been hit with a blow torch and you’ll have a pretty good idea what anthracnose can do to a dogwood tree.

Dogwood wood is very hard wood. It has long been used for golf club heads, mallets, chisel heads and even wedges for splitting wood. And here’s one for Jeopardy…the name may come from the bark that was boiled to make a shampoo to kill pests on a dog’s hair.

C. florida and C. kousa are not the only dogwoods for Puget Sound gardens.

We just happen to have the smallest and the tallest native dogwoods: the diminutive bunchberry, (Cornus Canadensis) and the Giant Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttalli). Some dogwoods are harder to find but well worth the hunt: Cornelian Cherry Dogwood (C. mas), Pagoda Dogwood (C. alternifolia), Red Twig Dogwood (C. stolonifera), Wedding Cake Dogwood (C. controversa ‘Variegata’) and Evergreen Dogwood (C. capitata).

Bunchberry (C. Canadensis) is a groundcover that looks like a miniature dogwood forest. It is only 8” tall with a 24” spread and covered in spring with tiny white dogwood flowers. Its native habitat is the forest floor so if you can recreate a shady area with moisture and rotting wood, you’ve got it made. C. Canadensis comes with a horticultural warning label, “challenging”. If you have an ideal location for it, it’s a real showstopper. Red berries follow the flowers. It is the only herbaceous Cornus. Basically that means that it dies back to the ground in winter, and with any luck, will graciously reappear in spring.

Cornelian Cherry Dogwood (Cornus mas) is an underused large shrub that grows 15 feet wide and tall. It has showy yellow flowers in very late winter that produce edible “cherries” in early fall. Notice the word delicious was avoided. The “cherries” are edible only if they are loaded with sugar and made into preserves. Winter flowers make it garden worthy.

The Wedding Cake Tree (C. controversa ‘Variegata’) has variegated leaves and layered branches at perfect right angles from the central trunk. Its creamy white spring flowers are small and insignificant but it doesn’t matter. The foliage is so spectacular that a few flowers would detract from its green and white leafy layers. A beautiful specimen is located at Lakewold Gardens.

Evergreen Dogwood (C. capitata) is a rarity. Some of the most intriguing plants come from the Himalayas and can be successfully be grown in the Puget Sound area. The blue poppy comes to mind. The Evergreen Dogwood is another one. C. capitata is suitable for zone 8 which pushes the envelope in some parts of the Puget Sound. It is hardy to 15 degrees. This unusual yellow flowered dogwood grows 20-30 feet high with equal spread.

C.’Eddie’s White Wonder’ is a cross between C. florida and C. nuttalli. It has the whitest of white very large flowers and doesn’t suffer from anthracnose like it’s more susceptible parents. This dogwood almost glows in the dark. It is a favorite.

Pagoda Dogwood (C. alternifolia) is a multitrunked small tree that grows to 20 feet. Its beauty is in its strong horizontal branching pattern and its red fall leaves. It grows in a shadier location as an attractive understory tree.

Redtwig Dogwood (C. stolonifera) loves moisture and travels by underground stems. Let’s be honest, it can be invasive unless you dig around it every few years to stop the stems from layering. It grows like crazy in the shade and. like its name suggests, has beautiful red stems. C. s. “flaviramea” is the yellow twig form. Both have stems prized for flower arranging, especially Ikebana.

Pacific Dogwood (C. nuttalli) is our 60-foot native that has the generosity to bloom twice, once in spring and again in fall. When you go for a drive through the passes after the snow has finally melted, the stately white stripes on the hillsides mixed in with the early spring greens are probably the Pacific Dogwoods. We are envied all over the world for these spectacular natives.

From the smallest to the tallest and everything in between there are dogwoods that suit every Puget Sound garden.

Reprinted with permission from Premier Media Group and South Sound Magazine, Tacoma, Wa