Barking up the right dogwood

The dogwood family is large and quite diverse, writes Brian Minter.

Dogwoods are now coming into bloom so take special note of the many varieties and perhaps find a home for at least one of them in your landscape

When we mention dogwoods, most folks think of our provincial flower which comes from the native dogwood, ‘Cornus nuttallii’ or the beautiful pink ‘floridas’.  Actually, the dogwood family is large and quite diverse.

‘Cornus’ is the Latin word for shrub.  Specific names are given according to individual characteristics, or some varieties are named after breeders.  ‘Cornus sanguinea’, for example, was so named because its bark is red.  Dogwoods have been known by such colourful common names as ‘Bloody Twig’, ‘Wild Cornel’, ‘Dogberry’, ‘Hound’s Tooth’ and ‘Gater Tree’.

In the landscape, the dogwood family is very useful.  ‘Cornus mas’ (Cornelian Cherry) is first to bloom.   In February and March, it bursts into masses of clustered, small yellow blossoms.  Native to southern Europe and Asia, it’s hardy in all parts of the province and grows to about 15 feet in height.  It has small, shiny green leaves which turn a delightful yellow and red in the fall, and its autumn colours are enhanced by clusters of bright, edible scarlet fruits which remain on the tree from September until the birds clean them off.

One of the most popular shrub dogwoods is ‘Cornus alba’ (Tatarian Dogwood).  Most varieties are hardy throughout the province.  My favourite new bush dogwood, however, is ‘Cornus Midwinter Fire’, with its chartreuse leaves and yellow and red coloured bark that lights up any winter garden.  Surprisingly, both of these varieties perform equally well in shade or sun, and they are invaluable as contrast plants.  In winter, the stems of both varieties are attractive, especially against a snowy background.  They grow to about eight feet in height but an occasional pruning will keep them low and attractive.

‘Cornus canadensis’ is really a deciduous perennial ground cover. It displays native dogwood-like flowers in May and June atop six to nine inch leafy stems.  In native settings, it can be found under trees and by lakes and streams.  Well-rotted old logs and areas of decaying bark seem to be some of their favourite growing places.  They are quite attractive, but unless you know just how to get them started, using lots of fine bark mulch, even nursery-grown plants will have difficulty getting established.

I’m truly fond of our ‘nuttallii’ (Western Dogwood) and ‘floridas’ (Eastern Dogwood) varieties but unfortunately, they are having some problems with crown canker and dogwood leaf blotch, diseases related to wet weather.  Until weather patterns swing back to drier springs on the Coast, plant all of these varieties in very well-drained areas and preferably, in among other trees.  Also, keep the kids away from the trunks, especially if they happen to be pushing a lawn mower.  If the bark is damaged, disease will set in and spread more easily.

In wet weather regions, I’ve really been impressed with the performance of two varieties.  One is ‘Cornus kousa’.  This multi-stemmed dogwood is native to Japan and Korea and is hardy to zone three with a minimum temperature ranging from 13° to -24°F.  Growing 20 feet high, it blooms in June and July with delightful flowers which turn into huge red edible raspberry-like hips in the fall. Its autumn colouring is a knockout, and the other big bonus is its disease resistance.  Today, there are many varieties of ‘kousa’ that truly are magnificent.  The pink form, ‘Satomi, is particularly beautiful, both for its flowers and its variegated foliage.  ‘Venus’ is a new one that has blooms up to six inches across.

The most popular of all dogwoods are the pink florida types.  There are quite a few varieties, and all look magnificent.  They will simply ‘pop’ with colour in your yard.  They are just starting to show colour now and will have beautiful foliage this fall.

‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ has also been quite remarkable.  Chosen as Vancouver’s centennial tree, it has four to five inch flowers at the ends of slightly pendulous branches and stunning red fall colour – it’s a winner!  Hardy and easy to transplant, it is quite resistant to diseases affecting both the ‘nuttallii’ and ‘florida’ varieties.

Dogwoods  are now coming into bloom so take special note of the many varieties and perhaps find a home for at least one of them in your landscape.