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Cornus sericea ‘Baileyi’ (photo courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens)
Cornus sericea ‘Baileyi’ (photo courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens)

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Moderate

Cornus

Dogwood
Cornaceae
Deciduous, Evergreen, Perennials, Shrubs, Trees

All dogwoods offer attractive foliage and blossoms; some have spectacular fruit or winter bark. Leaves of many types turn brilliant colors in fall. What appear to be flower petals in many dogwoods are actually bracts—petal-like modified leaves. These surround the inconspicuous true flowers.

Cornus canadensis

Native from Northern California to Alaska and eastward. Difficult but possible to grow in Zones 8, 9, 14–16. Groundcover 6–9 in. high, found in the wild under trees by lakes and streams. Creeping rootstocks send up stems topped by whorls of oval or roundish, 1–2-in.-long, deep green leaves that turn yellow in fall, die down in winter. In late spring or early summer, plants bear small, compact clusters of tiny flowers surrounded by (usually) four oval, 1/2–3/4-in., pure white bracts. Clusters of small, shiny red fruits follow in late summer.

Best performance in part or full shade in cool, moist climates, in acid soil with generous amounts of organic matter. Set out small plants from pots about 1 ft. apart. Small rooted pieces gathered from the woods may not establish easily. Excellent with rhododendrons, ferns, trilliums, lilies.

Cornus capitata (photo courtesy of Laura Dunkin-Hubby)
Cornus capitata (photo courtesy of Laura Dunkin-Hubby)

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Cornus capitata

Himalayan native hardy to 15°F/–9°C. Not reliably evergreen; may drop all its leaves in cold weather, and often loses half of them in mild winters. Grows to 20–30 ft. tall and wide, with 2–4-in.-long, gray-green leaves; some turn red or purplish in fall.

Unless grown from cuttings; the trees don't flower until 8 to 10 years old, but when they do bloom, they are delightful. Small springtime clusters of flowers are surrounded by four to six 1 1/2-in.–2-in. creamy to pale yellow bracts. Large (1-in.), showy, strawberrylike crimson fruit in fall can be a litter problem, though birds may do some of the cleanup for you.

Cornus florida ‘Rubra’
Cornus florida ‘Rubra’

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Cornus florida

Native to eastern U.S. May reach 40 ft. high and wide, but more commonly seen at 20–30 ft. Trees tend to branch low, the branches building up in horizontal layers (with gray twigs pointing upward at branch ends). Mature trees—often wider than tall—have a gently rounded to flat crown.

Small flower clusters are surrounded by four roundish, 2–4-in. bracts with notched tips. The species has white bracts, but selections offer bracts in pink shades to nearly red (as well as white). Bracts form in fall; tips may dry out in harsh, dry winters, preventing inflorescence from opening fully. Flowers almost cover the tree in midspring before the leaves expand. Oval, 2–4-in.-long leaves are bright green above, lighter green beneath; turn glowing red in fall. Clusters of small, oval scarlet fruit last into winter or until birds eat them.

Subject to anthracnose, a fungus that can cause leaf damage, stem cankers, and decline or death of the tree. Avoid injury to bark from mowers and string trimmers; try to keep the tree healthy with adequate feeding, watering, and air circulation.

Cornus kousa ‘Satomi’ (photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.)
Cornus kousa ‘Satomi’ (photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.)

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Cornus kousa

Native to Japan and Korea. Can be a big multistemmed shrub or—with training—a small tree to 20 ft. tall and wide (or even larger). Dense, spreading, horizontal growth habit and delicate limb structure.

Lustrous medium green leaves, 4 in. long, have rusty brown hairs at base of veins on undersurface. Flowers along tops of branches show above leaves in late spring or early summer (later than other flowering dogwoods). Creamy white, rather narrow, 2–3-in.-long bracts with slender, sharp-pointed tips turn pink along edges. In late summer and fall, inch-wide red fruits appear, resembling large raspberries hanging below branches. Yellow or scarlet autumn leaf color. Less susceptible to anthracnose than some other dogwoods.

Cornus kousa chinensis ‘China Girl’ (photo courtesy of Ernst Kucklich)
Cornus kousa chinensis ‘China Girl’ (photo courtesy of Ernst Kucklich)

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Cornus kousa chinensis

Larger leaves and bracts than species.

Cornus mas ‘Golden Glory’ (photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.)
Cornus mas ‘Golden Glory’ (photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries, Inc.)

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Cornus mas

Native to southern Europe, Asia. Usually an airy, twiggy shrub but can be trained as a small tree (15–20 ft. high and wide). One of the earliest dogwoods to bloom, bearing clustered masses of small, soft yellow blossoms on bare twigs in mid- to late winter. Oval, 2–4-in.-long leaves turn from shiny green to yellow (or red, in some forms) in autumn. Fall color is enhanced by clusters of cherry-size, bright scarlet fruits that hang on until birds get them. Fruit can be used for preserves. In winter, flaking, mottled gray-and-tan bark provides interest. Tolerates alkaline soils.

Cornus nuttallii (photo courtesy of Andrea Gómez Romero)
Cornus nuttallii (photo courtesy of Andrea Gómez Romero)

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Cornus nuttallii

Native to Pacific Northwest and Northern California. Grows to 50 ft. tall, 20 ft. wide, with one trunk or several. Gray branches in pleasing horizontal pattern. Spectacular when it shows off its gleaming white bracts on bare branches in spring; there is often a second flowering in late summer, when the tree is in full leaf. Flowers are ringed by four to eight large (to 3-in.-long), rounded or pointed bracts; they may be white or pink-tinged white. Oval, 3–5-in. green leaves turn yellow, red, and pink in fall. Decorative red fruit in knoblike clusters in fall.

Dislikes routine garden watering, fertilizing, pruning; injury to tender bark provides entrance for insects and diseases. For better chance of success, give exceptionally good drainage and infrequent summer water, and plant under high-branching trees so that bark will not sunburn. In Northwest, however, planting under larger trees is not advisable. C. nuttallii is very susceptible to anthracnose in this region; a location under larger trees creates conditions that favor the disease—reduced air circulation and shadiness that extend time for wet foliage to dry.

‘Colrigo Giant’ is vigorous and heavy trunked, with low-branching but erect habit; bears a profusion of 6-in. flower heads. ‘Goldspot’ has leaves splashed with creamy yellow; because it is grafted, it blooms from an early age (when only 2 ft. high). ‘Starlight’ is a hybrid between C. nuttallii and C. kousa, with an upright habit to 30 ft. tall and 20 ft. wide. Blooms are white; fall leaf color is red. Resists anthracnose and powdery mildew. ‘Venus’, another cross between these two species, grows to 25 ft. tall and 20 ft. wide, with very large (6-in.) white blooms and few fruits.

Cornus sericea

Grown for its brilliant red fall foliage and winter twigs; it should be cut back severely in late dormant season. Native to moist places, Northern California to Alaska and eastward. Thrives not only in the coldest mountain areas of West but also throughout California—even in the intermediate valleys of Southern California if given frequent water.

Grows rapidly to form a multistemmed shrub 7–9 ft. high; spreads to 12 ft. or wider by creeping underground stems and rooting branches. Oval, 1 1/2–2 1/2-in.-long, fresh deep green leaves. Small, creamy white flowers in 2-in. clusters appear among leaves throughout summer; white or bluish fruits follow.

Use as a space filler on moist ground (good for holding banks) or plant along property line as a screen. Shade tolerant. To control spread, use a spade to cut off roots; also trim branches that touch the ground.

Cornus Stellar series

These disease-resistant single-trunked hybrids between C. florida and C. kousa grow to about 20 ft. tall, 25–30 ft. wide. Bloom (white or pink) comes between the midspring bloom of C. florida and late-spring or early-summer bloom of C. kousa. Blossoms appear along with the leaves. All have brilliant fall color.

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