Tennessee’s Front Yard Favorite: Flowering Dogwood

Text By Andy Pulte


Found naturally in over one third of all Tennessee counties, Cornus florida or flowering dogwood is among the state’s favorite trees.  It is one of the most beautiful small trees around, bringing ornamental value to the landscape four seasons of the year. April is the perfect month to take notice of this wonderful beauty.


Flowering Dogwood Tree


Dogwood Facts & Legends:


The name dogwood seemingly originated in Europe.  The story goes that a relative of our native dogwood’s bark was boiled in water and used to treat mange in dogs.  However, it is believed the word dogwood is quite possibly a corruption of the word dagwood.  The prefix dag refers to an old name for a meat skewer (for which this species could be used.)  Legend also tells that the dogwood once grew tall,  a large, straight tree, and was used to make the cross of Calvary. Jesus was so moved that he promised the tree would never again grow large enough to be employed for such a purpose.


Before the modern medical use of quinine, it is said a type of dogwood bark was employed as a fever medication.  In the textile industry wood from local dogwoods was often used to make shuttles for weaving machines because of its strength.  It was also commissioned along with our native persimmon for use in early golf clubs.


Flowering Dogwood


Dogwoods at Home:


Seventeen species of dogwood have roots in the United States.  Most of these are shrubs or small trees. Our native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is the most popular with home gardeners and one of the most widely planted ornamental trees.  This tree typically grows 12-20 feet tall with a six- to 12-inch trunk diameter, but it can grow larger.  Because this is considered a relatively short- to medium-lived tree, rarely reaching 100 years old, it is a good idea to establish new flowering dogwoods in your landscape before older trees fail.


A flowering dogwood in the home landscape has beautiful green leaves in the summer, brilliant red fall color and outstanding form and bark texture in the winter.  However, it is most noted for its spring flowers, however, the large petals (bracts) are not flowers at all. If you look closely you will see that there are around 20 true-flowers in the center of each bloom. Nearly all flowering dogwoods in the wild have white bracts, but a rare pink form can also be spotted from time to time. The first record of a pink flowering dogwood in the wild was by Mark Catesby of Virginia in 1731. Occasional finds of wild pink dogwood still occur to this day. As a general rule, pink dogwoods do not come true from seed, so they are usually propagated by grafting.


There are many specific cultivars of this plant that have been chosen based on their garden worthiness.  Decades of selection have led nurseries to choose plants with good disease resistance with either nice white or pink bracts, variegated leaves, weeping forms or even extremely short habits.



Bract: Considered a specialized leaf or leaflike part, usually situated at the base of a flower or inflorescence.  What are often taken to be the petals of flowers are sometimes bracts—for example, the showy white or pink bracts of dogwood blossoms.





Culture and Care:


Soil: Don’t get hung up on exactly the right soil type for this plant.  However, good drainage is a must. Flowering dogwoods will not tolerate saturated or poorly drained soil.


When to Plant: The best time to plant a flowering dogwood is during the dormant season, late fall through early spring, when the ground is not frozen or so wet it hampers digging.


How to Plant: Dig a hole twice as wide as your tree’s rootball or container. Plant a dogwood approximately two to three inches above the original soil line.  Mulch with three to four inches of mulch, being sure to keep the root flare of the tree exposed.  Water well and continue regular waterings when needed, remembering to not let tree become overly saturated.


Fertilizing: Flowering dogwoods need little to no fertilizer during their first season.  If faster growth is desired, a light fertilization may be beneficial early in the second season of growth.


Pruning:  After a dogwood is established, it will need little pruning.  Remove only dead, diseased or broken branches as soon as they become apparent.


*This article was adapted from “Dogwoods for American Gardens” Various Authors, The University of Tennessee Extension.  DEC 2000, PB1670-30M-12/00

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