How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Dogwood Trees
If you live in North America, chances are you’ve noticed beautiful spring-flowering dogwood trees. But did you know that they are just as at home in your landscaping as they are in the forest? Gardening expert Kelli Klein walks you through how to plant, grow, and care for dogwood trees.
Dogwood trees are a wonderful understory tree to add to your landscape. They provide showy spring flowers, green summer foliage dotted with bright red berries, scarlet fall leaves, and an interesting patterned bark during winter. Not only are they pleasing to the human eye, but they provide shelter for birds and small animals as well as fruit for the birds and flowers for the pollinators.
The main reason many gardeners add these trees to their landscape is for the beautiful spring blooms. The flowers can be either white or pink and have almost a cherry tree-like appearance in full bloom.
Dogwoods are native to the eastern United States. They can thrive in a variety of conditions throughout North America, making their general maintenance and care requirements easy to meet.
Dogwood Tree Overview
Plant Type Perennial
Species Cornus florida
Native Area North America and Mexico
Exposure Partial Shade
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests & Diseases Borers, Anthracnose
Soil Type Moist, Well-Drained Soil
Soil pH Acidic, neutral
What Are Dogwood Trees?
Dogwood trees are also called American dogwood, Florida dogwood, Indian arrowwood, Cornelian tree, white cornel, white dogwood, false box, or false boxwood. The name dogwood is said to come from the fact that the fruit is not even fit for the dog. Many caterpillars feed on the leaves, and birds eat the fruits.
These flowering trees are often planted as an ornamental. They produce white or pink blooms and are popular amongst gardeners looking for an early spring blooming tree. Under ideal growing conditions, they can live to be 80 years old!
Their native range includes the Eastern portion of North America and some areas of Northern Mexico. Flowering dogwood is even Virginia’s state tree.
Native Americans used dogwood trees for many medicinal purposes. The chewed bark has been used as an analgesic for headaches, fever, toothaches, colic, and other pains. Arrow shafts, daggers, and other tools were made from this hardwood.
In 1915, President Taft sent a gift of dogwood trees to Japan as a thank-you for the gift of cherry trees. Those original trees have since died (they reached the end of their natural lifespan), but the Friendship Blossoms Initiative kept the sentiment between countries alive by sending three thousand trees to Japan in 2012.
As mentioned above, the dogwood tree native range includes a large portion of the Eastern United States and spreads into Northern Mexico.
In this native area, dogwood trees are often grown as ornamentals in private residences and public parkways. This tree is beloved for its ability to thrive equally in natural forests and manicured landscapes. It is also relatively adaptable and can survive a variety of climates.
Since dogwoods are understory trees, they have a short or shrubby growth habit rather than a tall and pointy one (like an evergreen tree, for example). This low-branched tree usually has a flat crown and spreads as wide as it is tall.
They can grow to be about 30-35 feet tall and wide. They have oval-shaped leaves about three inches long, which are dark green during summer and turn scarlet in fall.
In spring, flowering dogwoods produce creamy white flowers with four petals that later turn into bright red berries. Though white is the most common, some tree varieties have pink flowers. This deciduous tree drops its leaves completely during winter to reveal a dark patterned bark.
Although this tree does produce a small fruit, it is generally planted as an ornamental rather than an edible. The berries are not edible for humans, but the fruit will feed your local birds!
Like most trees, they also provide shelter to birds and small mammals. In addition, the spring flowers will provide early forage for your local pollinators. Overall, they add beauty to your landscape and habitat and food for the local wildlife. What more could you ask for?
Where To Buy Dogwood Trees?
Dogwoods can be purchased as bare root trees from many online retailers. Selecting a bare root tree is the best way to establish a new tree.
However, you may also be able to find dogwood trees for sale throughout the season in various stages of growth at a local nursery, garden center, or even a big box store.
The best time to plant your dogwood tree is early spring. As mentioned above, you can purchase dogwood trees in various states of growth, but the easiest tree to establish will be a bare-root tree planted while it is still dormant in early spring. This will give it time to establish before the heat of the summer sets in.
When planting, make sure that you dig a hole at least one foot wider than the original container. When placing your bare root tree into the hole, ensure the roots are pointing downward and out from the trunk and not bending back upwards or splayed out to the sides.
You might need a second set of hands to hold up the tree while you backfill the hole. You can fill it with the same soil from the hole or mix in some organic matter or compost at planting time. Be sure to give your tree a good soak with the hose after planting.
How to Grow
Dogwood trees require moderate maintenance, including regular watering, pruning, and optional fertilizing. But with their basic care requirements met, they can thrive and provide your landscape with beautiful spring blooms for decades!
In their natural habitat, dogwood trees are understory trees. This means they grow to a medium height, usually under the shade of other, larger forest trees.
They do best in partial shade conditions. Since you might not have a forest, mimic this by planting your dogwood near a larger tree or building. When providing shade, remember that these trees do best with morning sun and afternoon shade.
Although partial shade is ideal for a dogwood tree, it can survive in full sun as long as it is kept well watered. Mulching your dogwood tree can help retain moisture and help it survive full sun conditions.
Be sure not to pile mulch directly up against the sides of the trunk, as this can cause trunk rot. Form a donut shape with the mulch leaving an open center around the trunk, and the mulch will allow water to gather near the tree’s base rather than run off.
Dogwood trees require a moderate amount of water. Be sure to provide your established dogwood trees with at least 1-2 inches per week. If it rains consistently, then you won’t need to provide additional water.
While establishing a newly planted tree, provide it with 1-2 gallons of water per week and more during hot weather. This can be easily accomplished by placing a soaker hose at the tree’s base. After the leaves have fallen from the tree and it has entered winter dormancy, cut watering in half. If it snows in your area, you likely won’t need to water it during winter.
Dogwood trees prefer moist, well-draining soil. As mentioned above, and especially in hot and dry areas, these trees can benefit from mulch spread around the base to help the soil retain moisture. Amending the soil with fresh compost in the spring can also help with moisture retention.
Although dogwood trees will survive in alkaline soil, they do best in slightly acidic soil with a pH of 5.5-6.5. This simulates the conditions these trees would experience as part of the understory of a deciduous forest. As organic matter falls to the ground around them and decays, it creates a slightly acidic soil. This can be achieved in the home garden by adding a soil acidifier to the drop line around the tree’s base annually during spring. You can also feed the soil around your trees by mimicking what nature does and leaving the fallen leaves.
Temperature and Humidity
The ideal temperature range for a dogwood tree during the growing season is 60-80 degrees Fahrenheit. In areas with extreme drought and heat during the summer, they will struggle unless you can employ the proper shade, mulch, and water requirements. These trees have no specific humidity requirements. However, they do prefer some humidity rather than extremely dry conditions.
Conversely, once they enter winter dormancy, they can handle temperatures as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit. They reliably perform in USDA growing zones 5-9. Although these trees are quite hardy, the mulch does double duty by retaining moisture during summer heat and protecting the roots from the extreme winter cold.
Fertilizing dogwood trees is optional as they do not require fertilizer to bloom once established. However, if you want to encourage more growth, you may apply a fertilizer slightly higher in nitrogen in spring.
If too much nitrogen is applied, however, you may get lots of new growth and foliage but not many blooms. Many choose to forego the fertilizer altogether and only add a few shovels of fresh compost each spring.
Dogwood trees benefit from regular pruning. This can be done once yearly in late fall or winter when the tree is dormant. This will ensure that the tree is not susceptible to boring insects like it would be if you pruned it in spring or summer when more of these pests are around. Pruning during the fall/winter will ensure the tree can heal the cuts before these pests return the following growing season.
When pruning your dogwood, you’ll want to look for any dead or damaged branches and remove them. Cut off old or twiggy stems, and take the opportunity to thin out any overgrown areas as well, primarily focusing on areas with branches that crisscross or grow downwards. You want to leave the strongest and healthiest branches growing in an upward and overall pleasing shape to grow on for the next year.
Growing In Containers
The short answer is no, they can’t be grown in containers. Dogwoods have a shallow root system that prefers to spread, and mature trees can reach 35 feet tall with a root spread of 30 feet. This isn’t ideal for containers. They can be started in containers and transplanted into the ground later, but they won’t be happy in a container for the long term.
Dogwood trees are easy to propagate from both cuttings and seeds. A softwood cutting can be taken in the early spring, just as new growth appears. These cuttings can be rooted in water or directly into the soil. Rooting hormone is not necessary, but it can help speed the process. Once measurable root growth has developed, you can place your cutting into its final planting site. Follow the tips mentioned above for watering a newly planted tree.
These trees can also be grown from seed, although it can take up to 10 years for a dogwood tree to reach maturity when grown this way (cuttings give you a head start). Although, this is considered relatively fast growth for a tree!
The seeds can be gathered by harvesting the mature fruit. Peel back the fleshy fruit to reveal the inner seed. Rinse and soak the seeds to aid in germination. Plant them in soil and keep them in a warm location like a sunny windowsill.
Keep them evenly moist until you see sprouts. Raise the seedlings until they reach a transplantable size of at least 6-8 inches tall. At this point, you can place them in pots. When they reach sapling size, transplant them into the ground.
Dogwood trees are relatively trouble-free, but there are some pests and diseases to look for, especially if you live in certain areas where dogwood anthracnose is known to be present. Read on to learn the signs of distress and how to manage and correct them.
Lack of Flowers
A lack of phosphorus and potassium can interfere with flowering. Using a balanced fertilizer can ensure your dogwood tree has everything it needs to produce beautiful blooms. However, a fertilizer too high in nitrogen can promote lots of leafy growth but not many flowers.
The weather can also play a role in a lack of flowers. In extreme heat and drought conditions, especially early in the growing season, dogwoods will drop their flowers or not flower at all. Keeping your tree well-watered and mulched can help with this.
Dogwoods don’t produce flowers until they are a few years old. If you’re wondering why your newly planted cutting isn’t flowering, it likely isn’t old enough.
Dogwood borers appear as white caterpillars with yellow heads. They feed just below the surface of the bark and produce a saw-dust-like waste product that will appear around any openings or wounds on the tree. These pests are opportunists and generally look for existing wounds or openings to enter the tree.
It is important to wait until late fall or winter to perform all of your pruning. It will ensure that these pests are no longer around and give your tree time to heal before they become active again in spring.
Dogwood sawflies look like caterpillars, but they are wasp larvae. They feed on the leaves of trees and generally appear between May and July. These pests are not usually life-threatening to established trees, but they can cause severe damage to young trees and slow their growth. For small infestations, the larvae can be manually removed. For larger populations, consider using an insecticidal soap spray.
Dogwood anthracnose is caused by a fungal pathogen. This is a serious disease that affects dogwood species. All varieties of flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) are susceptible. Overly wet conditions can encourage the spread of this fungal pathogen, which is why infections usually occur in a cool and wet spring.
Increasing airflow around the tree can help prevent it and limit its spread. Pruning any overstory trees may be necessary to achieve this. As the weather conditions dry up, so will the fungal growth. Most established trees can recover so long as the weather conditions improve and the fungal growth subsides. This disease can kill dogwood of all sizes but is most severe on young trees.
Root rot is a fungal growth that attacks the roots of plants exposed to consistently wet soil. Symptoms of root rot in trees will appear as discolored or wilted leaves, branch dieback, a thinning canopy, overall poor growth, browning or blackening at the base of the trunk, mushroom growth at the base of the trunk, on the roots, or the areas surrounding the tree.
Root rot is harder for trees to recover from than other plants. Smaller plants can be dug up, damaged roots cut away, and replanted into dry soil to recover, but this isn’t feasible with a large tree. The best course of action is to prevent it from becoming an issue. For this reason, when choosing a planting site, avoid low-lying areas where standing water may gather (like near the downspout base) and always allow your tree to dry out between waterings.
Dogwood trees are a wonderful North American native tree to add an understory layer to your landscaping. This ornamental tree will provide beautiful white or pink spring flowers, which help support your local pollinators. The fruits provide food for the birds and other small animals. If you’d like to add a fast-growing large hardwood tree to your landscape, look no further than dogwood!