Woodland edges are now fringed with white, mostly from flowering dogwood flowers. They delight us before the leaves emerge. Many view dogwood (Cornus florida) as our state tree, but it isn’t. It’s our state flower and has been officially that since 1941.
In 1963, the General Assembly designated our state tree as the pine. I figure none of them were botanists as there are eight native species of pine in North Carolina. I wish they’d have picked one.
The most common to this area are the loblolly and the longleaf pine. However, shortleaf, Virginia, eastern white, pond, pitch, and Table Mountain Pine also dot our state forestland. A few others like Scot’s pine can also be found but they aren’t native. Dogwoods often grow under the shade of them all.
The native range of the flowering dogwood extends from southern Maine westward to Illinois and southward from Florida to Texas. While they sometimes grow in sunny places, dogwoods are primarily understory forest trees. They rarely reach 30 feet. When grown in dense shade, bloom is less spectacular.
Flowers are small clusters and not showy at all. The parts that catch our eye are the bracts that are immediately adjacent to the blooms. These white petal-like structures (pink on some ornamental varieties) form a cross-like pattern. Because of this, many legends link the dogwood to the crucifixion, but this is highly unlikely.
Legend states that dogwoods once were a large straight tree, but once Christ was nailed to a dogwood cross these trees never again were tall or straight. Also, the edges of the bracts appear to be tinged with brown, signifying blood stains.
All this makes for an interesting story, but dogwoods don’t grow in the Middle East. They are native to Europe and North America and there is no record of them ever growing in that region.
Dogwoods are shallow rooted trees. Because of this they don’t tolerate drought very well. When exposed to intense heat, wind and little rainfall, leaves brown starting from the edges and sometimes entire leaves shrivel up and fall off. This condition is called leaf scorch and is very common from our area southward.
Since these small trees often struggle in the heat one might assume they would thrive in wet areas. They don’t. If you want to grow one in your yard, pick a sheltered spot where water doesn’t collect. Dogwoods don’t like wet feet.
The most common disease to flowering dogwood is Anthracnose. This fungal pathogen causes dead spots on the foliage. In severe cases much of the canopy is affected.
If you are a dogwood lover and have trouble growing them due to this disease, try planting a Kousa (Chinese) dogwood. This species doesn’t have problems with anthracnose. The major difference between flowering and Kousa dogwoods is that Chinese dogwoods flower after leaves have developed. Edible mature Kousa fruits look like raspberries.
Clusters of red, single seeded fruits mature on flowering dogwoods in fall. Birds love them and they are edible for humans, but are a little bitter. Another common dogwood species, the Cornelian cherry, has delicious nutritious fruits.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.