by Val Engel
It’s the state flower of North Carolina and one of the highest regarded and well-known flowering shrubs of our region. Cornus florida, or Flowering Dogwood, is a small understory tree that you’ll find in the woods as well as in almost every home garden. In early spring, around Easter, before the leaves unfold, white or pink blooms cover the bare branches and herald in spring along with their partners the redbuds and azaleas – the later of which, although not native is equally firm in its position as one of North Carolina’s classic spring plants.
The flowers, actually, are not flowers at all but bracts – that is, modified leaves that look like petals. The yellow-green flowers themselves are clustered in the center of the four bracts, and provide early season pollen to bees and other insects you might find hovering happily around your trees.
In fact the flowering dogwood is a great plant all round if you love wildlife. In spring, you’ll provide pollen for bees and other pollinating insects. Birds like sparrows and robins also like building nests on the horizontal branches. In fall, you’ll find all sorts of birds arguing over the largest and biggest red berries that formed from the spring flowers. But a less noticeable but equally important roll of the dogwood is as a host plant. Several species of butterflies and moths prefer the dogwood above other plants for their larvae.
For example the spring azure butterfly – a small but beautiful metallic blue butterfly – lays its eggs on the flower buds of flowering dogwood (and also viburnum) in spring. The larvae feed on the flowers and leaves, then pupate in the ground or in crevices. It’s a long hibernation (early summer through winter!). In spring, the adult butterfly (one of the earliest butterflies of the year), finally emerge. The adults only live a few days to mate and lay eggs again on the dogwood flower buds. Giant silk moths are another insect that likes dogwood as a host plant.
Flowering dogwood can be grown as a single trunk or multi-trunk tree. It prefers partial shade – too much sun will burn the leaves and stunt growth. In shade, they will be taller and more open, with a graceful horizontal habit; with more sun they become compact but will produce more flowers. Plant in moist but well drained soil that is slightly acidic. In early spring, fertilize with an acid-forming fertilizer like Holly-Tone; then again 6 weeks later to promote blooms.
There are lots of dogwood cultivars to choose from. Mature heights will vary somewhat according to whether the plant is grown in sun or shade! Here are a few of our favorites:
Bob Timberlake -White, fully double flowers. 15′ tall and wide.
Cherokee Brave – Red flowers, 20′-30′ tall. Wider than it is tall.
Cherokee Chief – Rose red flowers, 20′-30′ tall. Wider than it is tall.
Cherokee Daybreak – Variegated foliage, white blooms. 20′ tall and 15′ wide
Cherokee Princess – White flowers, 20′-30′ tall. Wider than it is tall.
Cloud Nine – The best cultivar for large flowers! Bracts are white. 15′ tall and 20′ wide
Firebird – Variegated folliage (green and creamy white) with bright red new growth. Rose-red flowers. 25′ tall and 20′ wide.
Rubra – Pink flowers, excellent red fall color. 30′ tall. Wider than it is tall.