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.

A close-up of a dogwood tree reveals its intricate branches, gracefully reaching for the sky. Adorning these branches are delicate pink blooms, like nature's own confetti, celebrating the arrival of spring.

Contents

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

This magnificent dogwood tree stands in full bloom, showcasing its elegant white flowering branches. The strong and sturdy stem supports an abundance of delicate blooms. It's nestled among lush green grasses, with towering trees in the garden background.
Plant Type Perennial
Family Cornaceae
Genus Cornus
Species Cornus florida
Native Area North America and Mexico
Exposure Partial Shade
Height 35’
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests & Diseases Borers, Anthracnose
Maintenance Low
Soil Type Moist, Well-Drained Soil
Soil pH Acidic, neutral

What Are Dogwood Trees?

A close-up displays branches adorned with delicate white blooms. The tree's branches elegantly cradle these white flowers alongside small green leaves, creating a harmonious natural composition.
Under optimal conditions, they can thrive for up to 80 years, making them a long-lived species.

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.

History

These enchanting dogwood tree flowers, pure white and radiant, soak up the warm sunlight, casting a serene glow. Each petal seems to embrace the light, creating a beautiful play of shadows and highlights.
Dogwood trees served various medicinal and practical roles for Native Americans.

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. 

Native Area

A close-up of a dogwood tree bursts with the vibrant beauty of its pink blooms. These delicate flowers contrast beautifully against the branches, which are adorned with small, verdant leaves, creating a lovely visual symphony of nature.
These trees are renowned for their ability to thrive in both pristine forests and well-maintained landscapes.

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. 

Characteristics

A close-up of a dogwood tree. Sturdy branches reach gracefully towards the sky, adorned with vibrant green leaves that shimmer in the sunlight. Among the leaves, delicate white blooms burst into elegant splendor, creating a captivating spectacle.
Dogwoods are short or shrubby understory trees, typically with a wide, flat crown.

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. 

Uses

A close-up of dogwood tree's branches. Clusters of vivid red berries contrast beautifully against the backdrop of lush leaves. In the blurred background, hints of other green leaves further enhance the picture's natural charm.
This tree produces small fruits that are inedible to humans but serve as a food source for local birds.

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?

Within a garden adorned with a lush carpet of green grass and vibrant plants, majestic dogwood trees stand tall and proud. Their white flowering branches create a stunning contrast against the verdant surroundings, evoking a sense of natural wonder.
You can find dogwood trees for sale at different growth stages in local nurseries or large retail stores.

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. 

Planting

A close-up reveals the dogwood tree's slender branches adorned with small leaves and delicate white blooms. The graceful branches create an exquisite natural pattern, drawing attention to their understated elegance in the garden.
To plant the tree, ensure the hole is at least one foot wider than the original container.

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! 

Light

A close-up of a dogwood tree showcases an intricate network of branches that lead to the enchanting white blooms and lush green leaves. In the softly blurred background, more luxuriant green foliage adds depth and tranquility to the scene.
Remember that morning sun and afternoon shade work best for these trees.

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. 

Water

A close-up captures the delicate beauty of pink dogwood tree blooms, showcasing their gentle petals and vibrant color. In the background, lush green grasses frame the serene scene by the side of a tranquil lake.
Newly planted trees should receive 1-2 gallons of water per week.

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.  

Soil

A close-up of a soil meter anchored in brown soil, ready to assess the pH value of the earth. This tool provides essential information for optimal plant growth, ensuring the soil's health and balance.
Adding fresh compost to the soil during spring can enhance moisture retention.

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

A close-up of dogwood tree branches reveals the graceful elegance of pink flower clusters, each petal in perfect harmony. These blossoms radiate natural charm, a true spectacle in any garden setting.
The dogwood tree thrives in a temperature range of 60-80 degrees Fahrenheit during the growing season.

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

Within a shovel, fresh compost humus is waiting for its role in nurturing the soil. In the blurred background, vibrant foliage and a warm, inviting glow of light provide a sense of anticipation for gardening and growth.
Overusing nitrogen can lead to excessive foliage at the expense of blooms.

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. 

Maintenance

A man's hand takes up a large pruning tool to carefully trim the vibrant red twigs of a dogwood bush. These twigs stand out against the brown soil, surrounded by other green plants, in preparation for the upcoming season of growth and renewal.
When pruning, eliminate dead or damaged branches and thin out overgrown areas.

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

A close-up of a flowering white dogwood tree reveals delicate clusters of white blooms. The sturdy stem and branches support this beautiful canopy of blossoms. The tree stands in a smooth, green grassy lawn surrounded by other towering trees.
Keeping them in containers for an extended period will not be conducive to their well-being.

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. 

Propagation

A close-up of dogwood tree branches. A profusion of white flowers adorning the branches like delicate snowflakes. These white flowers create a stunning contrast against the tree's dark branches.
Propagating dogwood trees is a straightforward process, achievable through cuttings and seeds.

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.  

Common Problems

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 close-up view of a single Cornus kousa flower showcases its pure white petals. The lush green leaves serve as a vibrant backdrop to this exquisite bloom, enhancing its natural beauty.
To ensure your dogwood tree produces beautiful blooms, use a balanced fertilizer.

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. 

Pests

A close-up captures the damage inflicted on the leaves of a dogwood tree, a result of infestation by dogwood sawfly larvae. The leaves appear tattered and unhealthy due to the presence of these voracious pests.
These pests are opportunistic and seek pre-existing entry points into trees.

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. 

Diseases

A close-up exposes the impact of Anthracnose Fungal Disease on the creamy dogwood flowers, marked by distressing red spots. The tree is nestled amidst lush green grass and distant towering trees.
When selecting a planting site, avoid low-lying areas prone to standing water.

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. 

Final Thoughts

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! 

SHARE THIS POST
Two tree canopies with burnished orange and golden yellow leaves intersect under a blue sky.

Trees

21 Trees With Spectacular Fall Color

Do you want to add color to your autumn garden but aren’t quite sure where to start? Many deciduous trees create massive amounts of color in autumn with very little maintenance. Here, gardening expert Melissa Strauss shares 21 of her favorite trees for maximum fall color.

A podocarpus plant, its slender leaves stretching gracefully. Red, yellow, and orange berries adorn the podocarpus branches, adding a burst of color to the scene. The blurred background shows green grass.

Trees

How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Podocarpus

Are you looking for a low-maintenance shrub that makes an excellent noise or windscreen? Perhaps you're in the market for a sturdy privacy hedge. Podocarpus handles these tasks wonderfully. Here, gardening expert Melissa Strauss discusses how to grow and care for these coniferous shrubs.

magnolia tree blooming with pink flowers

Trees

When Do Magnolia Trees Bloom?

Are you wondering when your magnolia trees will start blooming this season and how long those blooms will last? In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss shares when you can expect your magnolias to bloom, and how long their beautiful white flowers will stick around.

Bradford pear alternative redbud tree blooming with pink flowers

Trees

17 Trees You Can Plant Instead of Bradford Pears

Are you looking for some trees to plant instead of growing Bradford Pear trees in your garden or home landscape? There are many different options, depending on your hardiness zone. In this article, gardening expert Liessa Bowen shares her favorite trees you can plant instead of growing the infamously invasive Bradford Pear tree.