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How to Choose a Flowering Dogwood Tree

February 24, 2020

Written by Dave G.

Flowering Dogwood Trees are among the most spectacular flowering trees there are, and they are top choices for any garden. Grown as a lawn specimen, planted as background trees for your garden, or grown along the fringes of wooded areas, their spring and early summer blooming is a fantastic seasonal highlight, and lasts for several weeks. Some have attractive fruit, with amazing fall colors too, and their graceful branching makes them beautiful in summer, when they are clothed in green.

In some parts of the country local wild populations have been devastated by disease, which has spread to garden trees too, so its understandable that you might be uncertain of how to get the best out of these great plants. Let’s try to help, with a guide to what to look for when choosing a dogwood tree for your own garden.

Choose the Color

The classic ‘flowers’ of the dogwood tree are white, but there are other choices too. In this tree the true flowers are not showy – it is modified leaves called bracts that make the large, spreading ‘petals’ of the blooms. Besides the delicious creamy white that sets the standard for them, breeding and selection have given us a whole range of colors from pale pink to near-red, so consider choosing a colorful variety. If you have the space in your garden, then a mix of colors will create an unbeatable display. The American dogwood is available in lots of colors, and so are the hybrid trees. Asian dogwoods are mostly white, and the pinks and reds that do exist can fade as the flowers age, so for strong color choosing an American or hybrid tree is usually best.

Choose the Size

Most flowering dogwood trees develop into broad, spreading plants with layered branching. With either a single short trunk, or several main stems of equal sizes, mature trees are usually at least as broad as they are tall, and often wider. Most trees fall in the range of 15 to 30 feet tall and wide, so when choosing a planting spot, be sure to allow enough room for that mature spread. Not providing enough room for trees is the most common mistake seen in new gardens, so use a tape to check if you have given your new tree the space it needs.

If a full-sized tree is more than your garden can handle, don’t despair, as many of the newer, hybrid trees are significantly smaller, and trees in the 12 to 18-foot range are readily available. Take a look at the space you have, so that when browsing for a tree you can look at the sizes and choose something that will fit.

Choose the Flowering Time

The fact that there are three or four possible types of dogwood you can grow, with different characteristics and different flowering times, causes some confusion, but it’s worth understanding. By choosing appropriately you can enjoy almost 3 months of dogwoods blooming in your garden. The American native dogwood, which is often the most common in gardens as well, is Cornus florida. This is also the first to flower, usually in April, doing it on bare branches. Flowers last for about 3 weeks, with the leaves emerging as they fade. At the other end of the season is the Chinese dogwood, Cornus kousa var. chinensis. This tree produces its leaves first, and only when they are fully open, by early summer, does the tree flower. Usually blooming is so spectacular that the leaves are almost hidden by the flowers.

In between are the hybrid trees (correctly called Cornus x rutgersensis), which are crossed between the American and Chinese species, created over a 50-year period at Rutgers University by Professor Elwin Orton, mainly for disease resistance. They bloom after the leaves, but earlier, so they nicely bridge the gap between the American tree and its Chinese cousin. They have become much more widely planted following the destruction of so many trees by the fungal disease ‘dogwood anthracnose’, because of their resistance to both it and the less harmful, but unsightly, powdery mildew.

For something different we should also mention the Himalayan Dogwood (Cornus capitata subsp. angustata), which blooms late, in June, and has the added feature of holding its red fall leaves all winter, at least as far north as Philadelphia, and so being effectively evergreen.

Don’t Forget Fall and Winter

While flowers are the big feature with dogwood trees, don’t forget that they also have wonderful fall colors. There is some variation between different varieties, so it is worth adding it to your considerations. Fall color varies from very dark reds to brighter oranges – always lovely, but it depends on your personal taste.

Tree bark is always a winter feature, and with dogwoods it can vary. The Chinese dogwood is especially notable, since it has beautiful bark that sheds (‘exfoliates’), revealing camouflage patterns of gray, tan, brown and khaki. The American tree is noted for its ‘crocodile’ bark, which is dark gray and split into small hexagonal plates. This bark difference is also good for recognition. Bark on hybrid trees is usually of the Chinese type.

Choose It for the Spot in Your Garden

The ideal location for a dogwood tree is partial shade, similar to the places in woodlands that are where they naturally live. If you are in cooler zones, or have generally moist soil, then full sun is perfectly fine, and will probably produce more flowers and better fall color. Richer soils, but well-drained, are ideal, and while acid soils are best, these trees are adaptable, and only very alkaline soils are unsuitable. Location should not just be about what the plant needs, because with a beautiful specimen tree you want to be able to see it to, so consider the view from windows, especially for the earlier American dogwood, or from terraces and well-used parts of the garden.

Choose It for Where You Live

Overall, the Chinese dogwood is a little more winter-hardy, so it should be a prime choice if you live in zone 5. The biggest factor in your zone, though, will be the presence of the lethal dogwood anthracnose. This is most widespread in the north-east, with it spreading into some parts of the south too. Check with your local college or university if they have a horticulture department, to see just how widespread it is in your area. If it is, then you would be wise to plant Chinese or Himalayan dogwoods, and the hybrids, all of which have good resistance to anthracnose. Only one variety of American dogwood – ‘Appalachian Spring’ – shows good resistance. It has white blooms, so get your color from the hybrids if you are in a disease-prone part of the country.

Make Your Choice

Now you have a better idea of what is available, and involved in making a good decision, it’s time to start planning and planting, and enjoying a spectacular spring and early summer of blooms within just a few short years.

Comments 14 comments

  1. Looking for 2 white….one Pink

    1. March 21, 2020 by Dave G

      We have both available right now.

  2. March 30, 2020 by Mitch Allen

    Do you sell bee bee trees?

    1. March 31, 2020 by Dave G

      No. Although very attractive to bees, this tree (Korean evodia Tetradium daniellii) is invasive, at least in some places, and a threat to native woodlands. We have enough threats to our native trees, so why add another one? It may be OK to grow in other places, probably dry areas where the seeds can’t germinate, but I don’t know about that. if anyone has information, glad to hear it. There are lots of plants that attract and feed bees.

  3. March 31, 2020 by Dinah

    How do you plant a dogwood

    1. March 31, 2020 by Dave G

      You will find planting information in the text on our main dogwood page. You will also find lots of beautiful trees to buy, so you have something good to plant!
      You can find more detailed planting information on deciduous trees, which the dogwood is, in this planting guide.

  4. April 3, 2020 by Cindy

    I’m in south Florida, can you recommend any beautiful and fragrant trees that will grow in my zone?

    1. April 4, 2020 by Dave G

      Your in Zone 10, which gets you into a whole different range of subtropical trees that we don’t often have. You might try a more specialized local grower.

  5. April 25, 2020 by Daniel

    I live in a 7a-7b zone. I know Dogwoods grow in this area, but what is the best dogwood for this type of zone. Also, what level of maturity do you sell? I want one that is more established.

    1. April 25, 2020 by Dave G

      Check if you have a lot of disease on the native dogwood in your particular area – try a local agricultural office. If you do, I would suggest a Kousa dogwood, or a hybrid variety, as they are more resistant. The sizes available are indicated with each plant, but remember that with dogwoods they don’t transplant well, so it is best to start with a younger tree than try to get an older one established. After 5 years, a younger tree will have caught up with a bigger one that has been dug up, potted and then planted in your garden.

  6. May 2, 2020 by Rhonda Childress

    Do you have Appalachian Spring variety dogwood?

    1. May 3, 2020 by Dave G

      Not right now, but check back, our stock is constantly changing.

  7. May 7, 2020 by LC

    I live in Delaware. I want to plant Pink or Red Dogwood Trees. In my front yard.
    Which is the best to plant. Bare root, bucket, or Ball.

    1. May 7, 2020 by Dave G

      You aren’t going to ever find a flowering dogwood bare-root – they transplant badly. Ball & Burlap is pretty rare these days, and only available seasonally, so you are most likely to be able to get on in a pot (bucket).