Flowering Dogwood: Quintessential Piedmont Springtime

Dogwood Flowers

Most gardeners I talk to in my part of the southeastern Piedmont agree that spring this year is ahead of schedule by at least a week — maybe more. Trees and spring bulbs that usually bloom in a predictable succession are blooming closer to simultaneously. Of course, the ridiculous heat we’ve had is to blame. We’re not supposed to reach 80 degrees Farenheit in February and March — at least that’s the way things used to be.

In the cities near me, Flowering Dogwoods (Cornus florida) have been blooming for more than a week. My cold-spot yard slowed down my dogwoods a bit. They’re just now fully open, their initially cream-colored bracts bleaching to the snow white we all love.

For those less familiar with dogwoods, you should know that those four white structures often mistaken for petals are, botanically speaking, bracts. Bracts are leaf-like structures that often surround flower buds. But sometimes they become the colorful part of the “flower,” as with dogwoods and poinsettias. The actual flowers are in the center, and they are responsible for producing the glossy, bright red fruits (technically called drupes) beloved by 43 species (according to Dirr) of birds.

This tree is favored by landscapers because of its four-season appeal. Fall color is spectacular, spring blooms gorgeous, and summer foliage is quite respectable. Its distinctive bark and horizontal branching habit make it a standout in the winter landscape.

Like our native Redbuds, Flowering Dogwoods occur naturally along woodland edges and in forest clearings — places where they are sheltered from summer heat by adjacent canopy trees, but can still receive enough light to ensure good flower production.

It pains me to see these lovely trees unintentionally abused by well-meaning landscapers and home gardeners. All too often, folks plunk an innocent young dogwood into the middle of a lawn — usually without improving the soil of the planting site — throw a little mulch around it, then let their automatic lawn sprinkler systems do the watering. The trees suffer, decline, and die, because their growing requirements were ignored.

Lawns are terrible places for dogwoods. The trees have no canopy neighbors to protect them from summer heat. Dogwoods are shallow-rooted, so every time you fertilize or mow your lawn, you are likely damaging tree roots. And if you mix herbicides in your lawn food, those shallow tree roots are slowly being poisoned in your quest for a non-native green lawn carpet. Likewise, watering should be deep and infrequent. Shallow sprinkler watering will only encourage the tree’s roots to remain close to the surface, where they are more prone to damage.

Flowering Dogwoods are lovely trees, and nearly every southeast Piedmont yard can be enhanced by their presence. But if you add one, please, stop and try to put yourself in this native’s place. Provide it with a woodland edge, mulch around it as widely as its branches spread above, and don’t let lawnmowers, fertilizers, or herbicides anywhere near it.

Your Flowering Dogwoods will reward you with year-round beauty. And the birds that love the crimson fruits will further enhance your landscape with color and movement.

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