Dogwood Trees Information

 | updated January 19, 2012
Dogwood Trees Information thumbnail
Dogwood Trees Information

Dogwood trees thrive under the canopy of taller trees, but they also like full sun. Blooming in the spring around the same time as azalea, dogwood trees add a burst of color to the landscape. There are many varieties of dogwood, including the cornus florida and cornus kousa, which are popular in the eastern United States. Does this Spark an idea?

  1. Characteristics

    • Considered short by tree standards, cornus florida and cornus kousa dogwood trees can reach a height of 20 to 30 feet. The bark of cornus florida resembles rectangles and its leaves turn a reddish-purple color in the fall, while the bark of cornus kousa typically flakes off and its leaves turn reddish-brown.

    Blooms and Fruit

    • Even in bloom, cornus florida has a wispy appearance, with blooms that are small and can be pink, white or reddish in color and remain for two to three weeks. Cornus kousa looks full, with branches that droop from the weight of the blooms, which are four-pointed stars one to two inches across and white to light-greenish white in color.
      The fruit of the dogwood appears in late August and into September and is a favorite of birds and squirrels. Cornus florida's fruit is less than 1/2-inch long and bright red, while the cornus kousa” is light-red-colored balls 1/2- to 1-inch in diameter.

    Growing Dogwood

    • Dogwood trees do best planted in the spring in partial shade, however, they can tolerate full sun if the soil is moist. Dig the hole three times as wide as the potted base of the tree and twice as deep to loosen up enough soil. Remove the tree from the pot and position it in the center of the hole. Lift the tree so the crown (where the trunk meets the roots) is slightly above ground and then fill the hole. Water it well and add mulch.

    Using Dogwood in the Landscape

    • Planted along with azalea, you will have a spring color show that is unbeatable. Dogwood trees work well if you have a small yard or can be planted near much taller trees to add lower level interest. The dogwood’s width, which is typically greater than its height, gives it great visual impact in the landscape.

    Potential Problems

    • Flies are attracted to the sweet red berries that fall from the cornus kousa dogwood tree, which can be a nuisance. Also, trees that are growing in a wooded setting with limited air circulation and sunlight are susceptible to dogwood blight, which is a fungus that attacks the leaves. The tips of twigs can be killed by twig borers.   Among the early spring-flowering trees the dogwood, Cornus florida, is regarded by most North Carolinians as unrivaled in beauty. It grows 15 to 25 feet (may reach 30 to 40 feet in wooded areas) in height and is generally wider than tall. This deciduous ornamental tree offers landscape interest for all seasons, beginning with its floral display in late March that last 2 to 4 weeks followed by deep, green foliage held on layered branches in the summer. With fall comes a brilliant show of scarlet to reddish purple foliage and bright red fruit (drupes) borne in small clusters. The fruit often lasts into December or until it is devoured by birds. The interesting bark texture and branches help create an excellent winter silhouette.

      Dogwoods make excellent understory trees in a semi-shaded area and can be used in foundation plantings. They are often used as a backdrop for rhododendrons, azaleas, or other spring-flowering shrubs. Dogwoods are excellent for specimen or accent plantings around the terrace or patio.

      Site Selection
      The flowering dogwood is native to North Carolina and much of the eastern United States. Its natural habitat is under tall pine trees or on the edge of a deciduous forest. In this microclimate, dogwoods receive filtered sunlight, high humidity, and protection from drying winds. The layer of leaf litter that falls each year that benefits the dogwoods shallow root system. Few dogwoods are found growing in full sun, deep shade, or in poorly drained soil. This natural environment is a far cry from the typical urban landscape with heavy clay soil that is poorly aerated, poorly drained, and almost completely lacking in organic matter. Lacking a proper environment, dogwoods are sometimes difficulty to establish.

      Dogwoods will grow in a variety of soil types but require good drainage. The best soil is a moist, fertile loam with slightly acidic pH (5.2 to 6.0). Dogwoods prefer a soil that is high in organic matter. For beds incorporate a 2- to 4-inch layer of organic matter such as pine bark mulch or compost.

      Select a site with partial shade. Trees planted in full sun or deep shade do not grow or flowers as well as those grown in partial shade. Sunlight promotes flowering, but the plants tend to be smaller, more compact, and loose some of their horizontal branching. If a full sun site is selected, plant in a northern or eastern exposure to protect them from the late afternoon sun.

      Select Cultivars for North Carolina
      Most dogwoods sold are grown free seeds --- while similar to each other they are genetically different. They will exhibit variations in flower size and the amount of flowers produced. To ensure adequate flowering, plant in a well selected and prepared site and purchase name cultivars. Named cultivars are grafted onto seedling dogwoods.


      Purchase nursery grown plants rather than digging plants from the woods. Wild dogwoods are often poorly shaped and have an unevenly developed root system. The optimum transplanting time is late fall to early spring.

      The current trend is to plant trees and shrubs in large beds. Preparation of an entire bed is preferred over preparing individual holes since the roots will have a larger area to grow before they encounter native soil that might be compacted and poorly aerated. Incorporate 3 inches of organic matter, such as pine bark mulch or compost, into the top 12 inches of soil. If you dig individual holes, prepare a hole that is 2 to 3 times as wide as the root ball but only as deep as the root ball. Incorporate lime and fertilizer according to a soil test report but do not incorporate organic matter. Set the plant at the same depth it grew in the nursery. If the tree is more than 6 to 8 feet tall, it may need staking during the first growing season --- especially if located in a high traffic or windy area. Pruning after planting is not recommended.

      General Maintenance
      Mulch - A 3- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch, replenished occasionally, is beneficial as it helps keep the soil moist, discourages weeds from growing, and most of all offers protection to the trunk from lawn mowers and string weed trimmers. Extended the mulch 8 to 10 feet from the base. Remove the mulch 3 to 4 inches from the tree trunk.

      Pruning - Dogwoods seldom need pruning except to remove dead, injured, diseased, or insect-infested branches. If shoots should grow below the graft they should be pruned off. Lower branches may need to be removed to allow for gardening activities or to improve air circulation. Prune in the dormant season --- pruning in late spring could create an entry point for dogwood borers. Make pruning cuts back to the branch collar.

      Watering - Adequate watering during the first year after transplanting is critical. Trees will need 1 inch of water per week during the growing season --- either from rain or from irrigation. Fall planted and mulched trees will need less water than those planted in the spring or summer. Dogwoods in full sun must have an adequate supply of water. Excessive watering can result in poor root development or decay --- dogwoods do not like wet feet.

      Fertilizing - Over fertilization is a frequent killer of young dogwoods. Its best not to fertilize the first year -- allow the root system and the foliage to reestablish a proper balance. A young 6 foot dogwood can be fertilized with up to 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) of 12-4-8 per tree in February and mid-June. For a well established tree use 1/2 pound (1 cup) per inch of trunk diameter or 3 ounces of nitrogen per 100 square feet of area. For a 12 percent nitrogen fertilizer that equates to 25 ounces of actual fertilizer. When applying fertilizer, scatter it evenly within 100 square foot area surrounding the tree.

      For mature trees reduce the amount of fertilizer. If they are growing near a lawn that is properly fertilized, they may not need any fertilizer. Moderate growth promotes flowering while vigorous growth may reduce flowering. 

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