Gardens need color to bring them alive. Large trees and evergreens are needed too, of course, but your garden should have flowering trees and shrubs to show the changes of the seasons and to brighten our days with their beauty. As well as flowers, some plants have colored leaves and other show their colors in their stems. Dogwoods are great plants for both flowers and colored stems. Some are small trees smothered in spring with large white flowers and others have brightly colored twigs in red, yellow and acid-green. They are trouble-free plants with few serious pests or diseases that will live happily in a wide variety of soils for many years and continue to bring pleasure and color to your garden. Some are especially useful for damp areas, or if you have water in your garden, like a pond or stream, since they will thrive in constantly wet soil where most other plants will fail. They will grow in sun or partial shade and are great choices for almost any garden in cooler parts of the country.
On your property
Dogwoods are useful for their flowers and for their natural form. Many are elegant small trees with graceful branches that bring charm and beauty to any garden. Other have bright twigs that bring color to the gray winter garden, when most of our plants are asleep, so that with planning you can have something colorful in your garden twelve months of the year. Some make lovely specimen trees in smaller gardens and some can be grown as low hedges to separate one part of the garden from another. They are excellent plants for gardens in cooler areas where they will thrive and make a beautiful show every year. They can be used as single specimens or planted in groups if you have a larger garden. They can even be used to make informal barriers and low hedges and the “Twig” varieties are excellent for wild and natural gardens, since they are mostly native American plants anyway
What are they like?
Dogwoods are small trees or shrubs that may be anything from 3 to 40 feet in height. They all have simple, oval leaves, usually dark green but some garden varieties have or red leaves or leaves with white edges. In some types the leaves also color well in fall, turning bright red or purple, which is an extra feature to consider when choosing them. The bark of the tree forms is usually smooth and dark grey or dark brown.
There are two distinct types of Dogwood Trees. One group is the Flowering Dogwood. These actually have small greenish flowers, but the flower cluster is surrounded by specialized leaves called bracts which look like large petals. These are usually white but can also be pinkish. There are American, Japanese and Chinese flowering dogwoods. Flowering vareties do best in both full sun and partial shade, making them very useful for shadier areas beneath large trees. In hotter areas shade from afternoon sun is a good idea. They may grow to around 30 feet tall in time, but most are smaller. They have elegant branches, often growing gracefully horizontal, which is especially charming when they are in flower. The flowers bloom in spring, with the new leaves and the trees are often spectacular, with flowers almost obscuring the leaves completely. After flowering red berries develop, which are sweet and edible – if you can get to them before the birds do!
The White Kousa, Cornus kousa, which grows wild in Japan and parts of China, is one of the best of these and grows in zones 5 through 8, so it is suitable for most Americans gardens. These trees are great choices for cooler gardens and ones with more trees and some shade, where many other plants will not grow as well. They are usually grown as elegant specimens to be admired by you, your family and your neighbours.
The second group are simply called Dogwoods, or Twig Dogwoods, and have small, usually white flowers which are fairly inconspicuous since there are no bracts. They may also have berries that are white or bluish and not edible. Different species of these Dogwoods come from China, parts of Asia and from all over North America. They are mostly shrubs and many have colorful stems which is their main garden feature. Since they grow naturally near water they are great plants to place near ponds and streams or in damp areas where other plants will not grow. They can be planted as individuals, but look best in clumps of 3, 5 or 7, where the twigs can be really admired.
The Yellow Twig (Cornus sericea) is a great shrub for winter effect, with a dense growth of bright yellow branches that bring color to your garden in winter. It is a native plant and so is excellent in wilder areas and the berries are important food for many types of birds.
Hardiness and growing conditions
Flowering Dogwoods grow in zones 5 to 8, so will grow everywhere except for the coldest mid-western states, coastal California and Florida. The twiggy Dogwoods are very hardy and will grow all the way up into zone 3, so nowhere in the US is too cold for them. Like the Flowering Dogwoods they will also grow right down into zone 8.
The flowering do best in fertile soil containing organic material. They prefer damp conditions, but not wet soil. The American species can be quite choosy about soil, but the White Kousa is adaptable to most kinds of soil, which is why it is widely grown in areas where the native trees will not thrive.
The Twig types thrive in wet conditions and will grow happily along the banks of ponds, streams and rivers, where they are often found in nature. So if you have wet areas in your garden or are lucky enough to have water, Twig varieties are great choices for those areas, which are hard to find plants for. They will also grow happily in regular garden conditions but should not get too dry, especially in spring. They will grow in sun or partial shade, but the twig colors will be stronger when they are grown in the sun. They will grow happily in all kinds of soil except for dry sandy soils.
Planting and initial care
They are easy to grow and needs no special soil preparation. Just dig a hole two or three times the width of the pot, but not much deeper. Break up the soil in the bottom of the hole but leave it in place. Place your plants in the prepared hole and replace most of the soil, which should be firmed down well around the roots. Then water thoroughly and replace the rest of the soil after the water drains away. For a hedge space the plants 3 feet apart. The Flowering cultivars should be given a little more care, with plenty of organic material being added to the soil and mulch applied over the roots, especially if grown in full sun. For the first year water well once a week and after that only when the soil begins to become dry.
Points of interest
The timber from these trees is very hard and strong, with a fine grain. It is used for making guitar parts and other things like arrows and solid wooden wheels. The twigs were used as switches for driving horses. A tea made from the bark was used by Civil War soldiers to reduce fevers and pain. Some are also used in Chinese traditional medicine. Wine can be made from the berries of the Flowering Dogwoods.
Flowering Dogwoods need little or no pruning and become more and more beautiful as they mature. Just remove the lower branches as they weaken or die to help develop a trunk and remove any other dead branches that may be seen. It is dangerous to prune these trees hard as it may kill them, so make sure you leave enough room for yours to mature naturally.
The Twig Dogwoods can be left to grow into large shrubs, but the effect of the winter twigs is much more impressive if they are pruned close to the ground every two or three years. This stimulates thick strong stems with brilliant color right to the ground. Prune them towards the end of winter or in very early spring after the snow has melted away and you can see the bases of the plants easily to prune them.
The Flowering deserve to be grown more, as they are beautiful and easy to grow as long as they do not suffer from drought. They make a charming small tree that can be the center-piece of even the smallest garden. The twiggy types are better known, but often neglected. A quick hard prune every couple of years will keep those beautiful colored twigs coming thick and strong and turn an ordinary plant into a thing of beauty.