Release the hounds: Varieties of dogwood running rampant

April 28, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Years ago, when I moved to a town whose main street is lined with flowering dogwoods, I was disappointed that the leafless trees weren't bigger, broader, more majestic. Then the end of April rolled around.

Suddenly, the dark, rough-barked branches of the 12-foot trees burst into abundant bloom. The effect was marvelous, like pink and white petticoats on parade from one end of town to the other.

"Flowering dogwood is spectacular when it's in flower," says Jane Baldwin, president of Cylburn Arboretum Association in Baltimore.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), native to most of the eastern United States, is not only beautiful, it has been used as both a hard wood and a medicinal for centuries. Its common names -- dogwood, dogberry and houndstree -- hint at its use as an anti-mange dip for canines. Additionally, its bark, which contains quinine, was used during the Civil War as an effective anti-malarial agent.

Although in autumn the leaves of native flowering dogwood are a glorious orangy red, Baldwin recommends consigning the trees to the background in a landscape. Instead, she thinks pride of place should go to the Korean dogwood (Cornus kousa), a much larger, wider-branching specimen.

"Flowering dogwoods are great for two weeks then the show is pretty much over," she says. "But kousa provides three- or four-season interest -- flowers, leaves, fall color, winter silhouette. It also has edible berries that the birds love."

Jim McDaniel, head of gardens at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, says: "Kousa has beautiful bark with little patches that pop off for a kind of mosaic effect. It also has wonderful fruit, which makes a delicious kousa jelly."

Of the 50 or so varieties of dogwood, about 20 are native to the United States, though many others thrive here. While most think "tree" when we mention dogwood, in fact, there are both tree and shrub varieties. Flowering dogwood, kousa dogwood, Japanese Cornel dogwood (Cornus officialis) with clusters of small, hairy yellow flowers in spring, and Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternafolia) whose small white flowers open on top of green foliage in mid-May, are all true trees.

Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas), which in early spring is covered with yellow blooms, Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) and Bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) are all shrubs.

In general, dogwoods like slightly acid, moist soil, though they don't like wet feet. The tree varieties, spring up naturally on the edges of woods and in open, deciduous forests, an indication that they like light or dappled shade. But the fast-growing (2 to 3 feet per year) red and yellow twig dogwoods prefer full sun.

"You get better stem colors in full sun," explains Hill. Stem color hinges on care. "You get your best color if you prune it back severely in early spring since it colors up more on new wood. The older wood tends to fade," Hill says.

Shrubby dogwoods can get 6 to 7 feet tall, though they will grow leggy if left unpruned. Although the native flowering dogwood is beautiful -- especially Cornus florida 'Pluribracteata,' which is double (extra-ruffly) flowered -- it is susceptible to anthracnose (discula destructiva), which eventually kills the tree.

"When the tree starts getting a lot of suckers [clusters of little shoots], it's a sign of anthracnose," says Jim McDaniel.

A recent cross between the florida and kousa varieties, called 'stellar' dogwood which is still undergoing trials at various arboretums, is reputed to be anthracnose free.


Wayside Gardens

1 Garden Lane

Hodges, SC 29695-0001


Henry Field's Seed and Nursery

P.O. Box 600

Shenandoah, IA 51602


Deep Valley Tree Farm

1551 Milestone Road

Robesonia, PA 19551


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