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Flowering dogwood in spring.
Credit: Getty Images

Here in the South, there is one tree deserving of all the springtime adulation it gets—the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). Maybe it's because they're native and grow wild in our woods. But more than any other tree, for us they herald spring. Learn how to select, grow and care for this all-season beauty—the flowering dogwood tree.

Four Seasons of Dogwood Beauty

There's a lesson I learned in horticulture school that's still true today—no ornamental flowering tree is so beautiful in so many seasons. In spring, clouds of cruciform blossoms of white, pink, or red (yes, red) adorn leafless branches. Though summer isn't its best season, its layered branches and broad, rounded form give it a tidy and classic look.

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Autumn is high time for dogwoods once again. Among the first trees to show fall color, its leaves turn scarlet to deep-wine crimson.

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And let's not forget the delightful berries that turn bright red about the same time as the leaves change. They remain for as long as the birds will let them. I've seen flocks of hungry robins and cedar waxwings descend like storms on fruiting dogwoods. And heaven help you if you get between a mockingbird and a dogwood he considers "his."

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Dogwood is an artful beauty in winter too for its biscuit-shaped flower buds, tiered lacy branches, and gray-brown, pebbled bark. A dogwood's silhouette in winter is pure sculpture.

How to Grow a Dogwood Tree

Light

Dogwood grows fine in shade, but it won't bloom there. For blooms, it needs at least a half-day of sun. For the heaviest bloom, plant it in full sun. Don't let anyone tell you dogwoods won't grow in full sun. I could point out all the prettiest dogwoods in my neighborhood and almost all grow in full sun.

Soil

Dogwood needs acid, moist, well-drained soil, preferably with some organic matter. If your soil is alkaline (above pH 7), don't bother. Don't assume that because you live east of the Mississippi, you automatically have acid soil. Thanks to buried limestone, plenty of places in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and Kentucky have alkaline soil. A soil test will reveal the pH of your soil.

Water

Dogwood has shallow roots and suffers readily during extended droughts. The surest sign is when the edges of its leaves scorch. To prevent this, dogwood needs a good soaking once a week in hot, dry weather. If its leave are wilted in the morning, it's thirsty.

Where to Plant

Flowering dogwood isn't a fast grower, but over the years matures at 20- to 30-feet tall and wide depending on its location. It makes a superb lawn or understory tree and is also good for shading courtyards and patios. Don't plant it where it will get a lot of radiated heat from pavement and masonry in the hot summer, or it will scorch. It also doesn't like polluted air and road salt.

Dogwood is hardy from the Upper Midwest down to the Gulf Coast, but don't let the wide range fool you. Nursery-grown trees from the North do better in the North than ones grown in the South and vice-versa. So if you live in Ohio, plant a selection like 'Spring Grove' (it tolerates 25 degrees below zero). If you live in Tennessee or Alabama, try 'Cherokee Princess' or 'Junior Miss' (they take the Southern heat). The first two have white flowers; the third is pink.

How to Plant

Do not buy balled-and-burlapped dogwoods! Most of their roots are cut off when they're dug from the field. You won't know this until you dig up your dead tree. Buy dogwoods grown in containers. Spring or fall planting is best. Dig a hole three times as wide as the the root ball, but no deeper. Plant the tree so that the top of the root ball is a half-inch above the soil surface. Water thoroughly, then cover the top of the root ball with several inches of mulch.

Dogwood Tree Problems

Stress Due to Pests or Damaged Bark

Healthy dogwoods have few problems. Stressed trees sometimes fall victim to borers that chew holes in the bark near the base of the tree. But most bark problems come from carelessness from mowing or weed-whacking too close to the tree that strips off the bark. Bye-bye, dogwood.

Decimation from Fungal Disease

In recent years, a disease called anthracnose has been decimating dogwoods. Whenever a new disease like this pops up, I always suspect something in the environment is stressing trees, like several years of summer drought, etc. Anthracnose causes spots on the new leaves and flowers that eventually infect the twigs and lead to dieback and even death. Fungicide sprays can prevent anthracnose, but the best solution is to plant them in the open (full sun), as trees grown in moist shade seem most susceptible.

Lack of Blooms from Insufficient Light or Poorly Chosen Selections

Why won't your dumb dogwood bloom? The most common cause is planting in too much shade. The other is digging a tree from the wild that may bloom great or hardly at all. In the latter case, you're much better off planting a named selection, such as the ones above, which are chosen for their profuse flowering. Other dogwood favorites include 'Appalachian Spring' (white flowers, disease resistant), 'Cloud 9' (white flowers, begins blooming at 3-feet tall), and 'Pluribracteata' (double-white blooms).

Beyond Dogwoods—Trees With Big Visual Impact

Trees that flower or display vivid, seasonal color are landscape showstoppers. In addition to dogwood, flowering trees like magnolia, cherry blossom, crepe myrtle, forsythia, redbud, and jacarana add drama to the Southern garden. For a shock of fall color, the leaves of serviceberry, gingko, Japanese maple, sugar maple, and Chinese pistache will light up your yard with splashes of reds or yellows.