We have become used to seeing flowering dogwoods in a wide range of colors, from pure white, through pinks and into near-reds. Some have colored foliage too, but in some parts of the garden, especially the more natural areas under trees, or in a woodland garden, something simpler is more appropriate. These are the places where the Empress of China Dogwood really fits the bill perfectly. It also makes a lovely specimen tree on a lawn, where its features can be truly appreciated, or blended with other small trees in a larger garden. Importantly too, it is resistant to diseases that have decimated flowering dogwood plantings in some areas, and it is a great substitute for the traditional native dogwood. Wherever you use it, this tree will find a place close to your heart, for its graceful charms, vigorous growth, and its natural look.
Growing Empress of China Dogwoods
The Empress of China Dogwood grows into a small tree, 15 to 20 feet tall and as much across. It may in future years become significantly larger. When planting, be sure to allow enough room for its full spread, so that you can really appreciate the beauty of it, without crowding. As it is fast-growing and exceptionally vigorous, you will not be waiting long to see the mature beauty of this tree. It has glossy, thick leaves, smooth and oval, and about 3 inches long. In fall the leaves turn purple, radiating color across the garden. You may also notice that the edges of the leaves turn downwards in winter – this is normal, and it gives the winter tree a special look. Unlike most other dogwoods, it does not lose it leaves in winter, and they remain on the tree, with all that lovely fall coloring, until spring. Then, as the new shoots burst out, they drop to the ground, returning your tree to its green summer cloak.
The Empress of China Dogwood is distinctive from other flowering dogwoods in its flowering season too. While others bloom in April and May, this tree begins as they are finishing, blooming in May and June. So growing this tree extends the time you will have dogwoods flowering in your garden – surely always a good thing! The blooms, (which are really modified leaves called ‘bracts’) are produced in profusion, and they cover the tree in a mantle of pure white, creating a superb picture. The four bracts, which are pointed, create a ‘flower’ 1½ to 2 inches across, and their quantity more than makes up for their slightly smaller size compared to some other flowering dogwoods. In the center of the bracts is a cluster of the true flowers, which are greenish-yellow. These are followed by clusters of large red fruits, up to 1 inch in diameter, so that by late summer and through fall, your tree is again full of color and interest. These berries are important food for wild birds, who will take them perhaps sooner than you might wish, but who will be truly grateful.
Plant the Empress of China Dogwood in full sun or partial shade, with more shade, especially in the afternoons, in warmer zones. In zone 6, choose a warm, sheltered spot, protected from cold north winds, for the best growth. Like all flowering dogwoods this tree grows best in moist but well-drained soil, so add plenty of organic material when preparing the planting site, and mulch over the root-zone in spring with more rich organic compost or manure. Keep your tree regularly watered, especially in the early years. More mature trees will tolerate normal summer drought, but be prepared to soak deeply if you see the foliage beginning to droop during longer dry spells.
In some areas, especially in the south, it has become difficult to grow the native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) because of a disease called anthracnose, which caused progressive loss of the tree as one branch after another dies. The Empress of China Dogwood is resistant to this disease, so it is an ideal replacement if you have lost trees this way, or if you live in an area where it has become a problem. As well, this tree is resistant to the less-serious, but unsightly, powdery mildew disease, which causes white powder to develop on the leaves, and make them look tired and sad in hot summer weather. It is exceptionally vigorous and fast-growing too, so it will flourish in your garden, and soon become a well-developed specimen tree.
History and Origins of the Empress of China Dogwood
The Empress of China Dogwood is a special form of a tree native to China, called Cornus capitata subsp. angustata. This tree has also variously been called Cornus elliptica and Cornus angustata by some botanists. It was first introduced into America in 1980 by Ted R. Dudley of the U.S. National Arboretum. In 1993, John Elsley of Wayside Gardens found an unusual seedling of this tree growing at a nursery in Greenwood, South Carolina. He grew it in his garden for a few years, and realized it had distinctive characteristics that made it superior to the wild tree, so he called it ‘Elsley’ and patented it in 2004.
This special tree is more vigorous, faster-growing, and flowers and fruits more prolifically than the wild tree does, and it is a great choice for the garden. With the spread of anthracnose, replacement dogwoods that are resistant are in high demand, and we have been able to find a limited quantity of these great trees. We advise you to order now, as our stock will be gone very soon.