Common to most parts of the United States, the flowering dogwood, Cornus florida L., is valued for its beauty in all seasons. Its hard but flexible wood has been used to make everything from spears and arrows to golf clubs and weaver’s shuttles. This small tree can be either singe-trunked or multi-trunked and bush-like. Its white or pink flowers are long-lived and eye-catching, and in the fall its foliage turns a red-purple. Its red winter berries attract songbirds.
The flowering dogwood has been a favorite in America since the Native Americans, who used its bark to make medicinal teas. It was cultivated in 1731 when a plant hunter named Marc Catesby first recorded the flowering dogwood. At that time it was native from Massachusetts to Florida and all the way west to Texas. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson planted flowering dogwoods at their homes, and the doctors of the Civil War used the Native American tea as a substitute for quinine.
There are many species of dogwood, but the most popular are the white and pink flowering varieties. The pink-blooming variety is a subspecies known as Cornus florida ‘Rubra,’ however seedlings, even those planted from seeds taken from this subspecies, are likely to bloom white. There are relatively few differences between these species, save for the colors of the flowers and the fall coloration of the white flowering dogwood, which is more colorful than that of the pink variety.
Seedlings can be found in most commercial hardwood nurseries. It is preferable to transplant seedlings that have a root ball, rather than transplanting those with bare roots. Around their third year, these trees become better suited to the shock of transplanting to permanent sites. The trees are typically 2 to 3 feet tall at this stage and easily moved without too much disturbance to their root systems. Seedlings show a more rapid growth of roots than do mature trees and this helps them adjust well to a new environment.
Both white and pink varieties prefer the same conditions. Well-drained but moist soil is important and dogwoods do well with some level of acidity to the soil. Their growth zones cover most of the United States, except the north-central states, though they can be expected to grow in Washington and the northeastern states. They prefer partial shade, but will also grow in full sunlight and will reach an average of around 25 feet tall with a 25-foot spread. Their small size, showy flowers and year-long attractiveness make flowering dogwoods a favorite ornamental in gardens and lawns and they make good shade trees.
Flowering dogwoods produce seeds after the dropping of their flowers’ petals, which is a process that takes the whole summer. The seeds turn red in late summer as they begin to mature. They shouldn’t be picked too early or they won’t develop fully. When the first few seeds begin to fall from the tree it’s a signal that they are ready to be picked. Those that fall will quickly become food for squirrels and other animals. Once they’re picked, they need to rest for week or two to allow the pulp to soften. After that, soaking them in a pale of water will allow you to separate the seeds from the pulp. Once they’ve been prepared, planting is as simple as spreading the seeds and sprinkling a light covering of soil over top, but no more than ¼ to ½ inch. Once they’re planted, they need a thorough watering. The soil should be allowed to dry before they are watered again.