Linda Geist
  • Flowering dogwood.Public domain image
    Flowering dogwood.Public domain image

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The dogwood tree’s stunning beauty echoes from the Ozark hillsides in April.

The spectacular show of color bears witness to why the dogwood is worthy of being Missouri’s state tree, said University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein.

The dogwood’s reign of beauty is spectacular but short-lived. Most of the year, these diminutive denizens of the forest are inconspicuous. The saying “every dog has its day” could easily apply to the dogwood, whose glory shines on April days, said Trinklein.

The English recorded the name “dogwood” in the early 16th century. Some historians believe the name originated from the English “dagwood,” a shortened version of “daggerwood.” Artisans used the tree’s hard, closely grained wood to make daggers and other weapons in medieval times, Trinklein said. Another theory suggests that a solution using the tannin-rich bark of the tree helped cure mange in dogs.

Dogwood’s true flowers are somewhat inconspicuous from a distance. However, the four showy, petal-like bracts that surround the tight cluster of small yellow flowers in the middle are striking. Bracts are usually white, although pink and red dogwood cultivars exist.

Dogwood adapts to a variety of soils and climates. It prefers moist, fertile soils high in organic matter. Dogwood performs best when taller trees provide it with dappled sunlight.

Plant breeders have developed cultivars that flower better and are more attractive than native types. However, many gardeners still find “volunteer” seedlings to be satisfactory for their yards and gardens, said Trinklein.

White-flowered cultivars available from nurseries and garden centers include Cloud 9. It blooms heavily and early. Cherokee Princess bears larger flowers than most native dogwoods. Retail outlets also sell seedlings of native trees without cultivar name. They usually cost less and tend to vary more in growth and flowering pattern than named cultivars.

Pink dogwoods occur naturally. Named cultivars of pink dogwoods, usually with more intense color, fare well in landscapes. One of the most popular is Cherokee Chief with its deep, ruby-red bracts. Red Beauty is a relatively new cultivar that produces dark, rosy-red bracts on a semi-dwarf tree. Several other lighter pink cultivars are available commercially.

Other dogwood cultivars gained popularity because of variegated foliage. Examples include Cherokee Daybreak, Cherokee Sunset, Hohman’s Gold and Golden Nugget.

Plant dogwoods no deeper than they were planted in the nursery, Trinklein said. Plant in soil that has been loosened 8 to 12 inches deep. The area should be equal to two to three times the diameter of the tree’s soil ball or production container. Adding organic matter, such as compost or peat moss, creates a favorable root growth environment when mixed with soil around a new tree. But take care not to overdo it. Too much organic matter creates a microenvironment that the tree’s roots will not want to leave, Trinklein said.

Water thoroughly once or twice a week during the first two growing seasons. However, avoid watering too frequently. Dogwood does not fare well in wet soils.

Novice gardeners make the common mistake of adding too much fertilizer to landscape trees to quicken growth. A newly planted dogwood requires only about ¼ cup of a complete fertilizer high in nitrogen (such as 12-4-8 or 16-4-8) in March and again in July. Evenly broadcast the fertilizer on the soil surface covering a radius two feet from the trunk.

Dogwood borer is the most common insect pest on established trees. The larvae of the borer, which gains entry through the bark, lives in the cambial area and can kill branches or entire trees. The best prevention is to avoid damage to the bark with equipment such as lawn mowers or weed trimmers.

Dogwood anthracnose is a relatively new, serious problem with flowering dogwoods, especially in the eastern and southeastern states. Symptoms include medium to large purple-bordered leaf spots and scorched tan blotches that may enlarge to kill the entire leaf. Dogwood anthracnose is not a big problem in the Midwest, but gardeners should be discouraged from importing trees from eastern forests into Missouri.

Trinklein recommends April in the Ozarks for those wanting to enjoy the state tree at the height of its glory. “It’s a spectacle that every Missourian should witness at least once in their life,” he added.

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