Dogwood Days Are Here Again!
Story by L. Beth Bonifant, Reprinted from Spring 2018
Some trees begin treating Southern Maryland to flowery performances early each year. Serviceberry, cherry, redbud, star and saucer magnolias get the party started. But you’ll know spring is in full swing when the dogwoods start to bloom. Every back road in the region seems lace-lined with these springtime superstars.
There are few more heartwarming sights in spring than the natural, native flowering dogwood, Cornus florida. As a child growing up in Southern Maryland, I developed an early reverence for these trees. My mother told me once I shouldn’t pick them. I thought it must be illegal, and I’m still not sure why I was scolded, but I’m almost certain it had to do with the religious lesson associated with them.
Legend has it that these small trees once grew as large and tall as oaks and were used to make the crucifixion cross of Jesus. Jesus took pity on the extreme shame the tree felt and promised that they would never grow large enough to be used for that purpose again.
The four petals of the flower form the shape of a cross; in the center outside edge of each petal, is a small reddish indentation. This mark is symbolic of either rust or blood caused by the nails that held Jesus to the cross. Blooming during the Easter season of Lent it reminds Christians of his death and resurrection.
An eternal sign to some, but for the American Indians it signaled the time to plant crops. Dogwood is a very strong and hard wood, with a tight grain not easily splintered. The botanical name Cornus reflects this quality as it means horn, like the solid, stiff horns on an animal.
Their wood has been used to make small, primitive hand tools such as dibblers, a pointed tool for planting seeds and seedlings; cleaning tools or picks for watches and jewelry, even golf club heads.
It does seem few trees muster such an emotional response as the beloved flowering dogwood. Native to the eastern U.S., these small- to medium-sized trees bloom before the leaves emerge. The beautiful blossoms are bracts surrounding tight clusters of tiny yellow flowers. The bracts attract pollinating insects to the flowers that they might otherwise fail to notice. With age, dogwoods develop an elegant habit with broad horizontal or tiered branches.
A natural understory tree, it seeks the shadowed protection of older, larger shade trees in the wild. Select a partial shade location in your landscape for minimum maintenance; but dogwood thrives in full sun, too, particularly when kept happy with irrigation during hot dry spells. As always, the importance of good amended soil and pine-based mulches can’t be overstated. Heavy or full shade results in a lackluster appearance with fewer flowers.
Dogwood disease or anthracnose, once considered a threat to the future existence of flowering dogwood, is simply fungus that thrives in cool, wet springs. A quick warmup will stop the fungus in its tracks. Undesirable conditions such as poor drainage, deep shade or drought increases the chance that damaging or deadly fungi and powdery mildews will affect trees. Keep in mind that dogwoods are not as long lived as many trees with typical life spans of 30 to 70 years.
Shallow roots distinguish dogwood as a perfectly behaved patio tree; able to provide light shade and privacy for outdoors seating areas. Prolific flowering displays along with ornamental form and seasonal features produce a fetching focal point near an entrance, or an accent anywhere in your yard. Ruby red berries and leaves that turn scarlet in fall will continue to stand out in the landscape.
Even during the bleakness of winter, subdued hues enhance the bark, developing a handsome rugged texture with age. A sculptural presence from a distance; up close, dome-shaped flower buds reveal how many flowers you can look forward to in spring.
So Many Choices
White is the obvious choice, but it isn’t your only one. Colorful clouds of red and pink are readily available alternatives, especially the spectacular Cherokee series. Kousa and Cornus kousa, an Asian species bred with our native dogwood during the 1970s has resulted in numerous varieties, hybrids and cultivars. Exhibiting later and larger blooms, greater disease resistance and better adaptability, these trees prefer sun to shade. Seeds, berries or fruits vary in size, shape and color providing wildlife more dining options.
Generally, pruning won’t be necessary but should be performed in late winter or early spring when you see the need. While you’re at it, clip off a few extra of the long, more slender branches to bring indoors; dogwood is easily forced to bloom in water. •