The American dogwood (Cornus florida) blooms are a welcoming sight after a long gray winter. They explode into bloom and herald the arrival of spring. The lovely white-bracketed flowers appear before the leaves emerge, making this tree stand out like no other dogwood. It is a handsome addition to any landscape.

The American dogwood is native from southernmost coastal Maine south to northern Florida and west to the Mississippi River. The early settlers, taking their cue from the Native Americans, put the dogwood to use. They chewed the bark of the tender twigs to reduce a fever, much as we might take quinine for the same purpose. Its roots were boiled to produce a red dye that was used to brighten up their homespun cloth. The powdered bark was mixed with iron sulfate, providing ink, and tool handles were made from its hard, tough wood.

Today, the flowering dogwood is highly regarded mainly for its beauty.
This beautiful tree is the state tree for both North Carolina and Virginia and there are over 15 dogwood festivals around the country to celebrate this special tree.

Even though the native dogwood is popular, there are other dogwoods that are gaining in popularity. The Japanese native, (Cornus kousa), often just called Kousa, has handsome white blooms that appear after the leaves have unfurled. It flowers about a month later than the American native, extending the season of lovely white flowers in the landscape. The foliage is deep green and in the summer months, it produces fruit that is quite interesting and showy, like small red balls dangling from the tree. The leaves stay green until the fall of the year when they turn a lovely reddish color.

During the 1970s, native American dogwoods (Cornus florida), were under serious attack from insects and diseases and the future of dogwoods used in landscaping was in jeopardy. The trees developed serious health problems from an infection called dogwood anthracnose. Plus, a powdery mildew can form on the leaves in late summer which is unattractive and can add to the poor health of the tree.

To address concerns for use of dogwoods in landscapes, Dr. Elwin Orton spent over 30 years breeding plants for improved qualities. Orton had a plan to crossbreed the native American dogwood tree with the hardier Asian species, Kousa, developing a hybrid that was a stronger dogwood tree.

Today, there are a number of new varieties of dogwoods that are available and worthy of a spot in our landscape. One in my garden is named Venus. It lights up the garden a few weeks later than the native dogwood and has huge, white brackets or blooms that are typically 6 to 8 inches across. It has superb resistance to disease, and with the large flowers, and fabulous fall color, this tree is a jewel to have.

Another charming cultivar is Cloud 9. It is a profusion of white clouds, producing many flowers, even when young. It has year-round appeal with exquisite flowers followed by red fruit in the summer. When fall comes round the birds will be on Cloud 9 eating the berries as they ripen. The fall foliage is burgundy-red and remains a lovely color longer than most trees that show fall color.

If pink flowers are what you are looking for, Stellar Pink has gained a solid reputation over the years. It is the most asked for pink dogwood that is available today. It is a vigorous grower and more uniformly full in width than are other Kousa dogwoods. This hardy tree unfurls its soft-pink flowers a few days later than other Kousa dogwoods.

Most dogwoods take full sun or light shade, and they need moist, acidic soil. Ideally, that soil should be well-drained and amended with plenty of organic matter to aid in draining and the movement of nutrients. Dogwoods need regular water, particularly in summer, when the heat can cause detrimental scorch to tender leaves.

I love the time of year when I see the dogwoods blooming. It has virtues that lift the spirit and makes me glad I live when I can enjoy these wonderful trees.

No matter what dogwood you choose, they all have their outstanding qualities and will add grace and charm and flower power to any garden. I will always be partial to the native dogwood with the lovely flowers that adorn the tree before the leaves appear. It is certainly one of my very favorite trees and I hope I am never without one. And, I hope our woods will always be filled with this lovely native dogwood that lights up the woodlands.

Betty Montgomery is a master gardener and author of “Hydrangeas: How To Grow, Cultivate & Enjoy,” and “A Four-Season Southern Garden.” She can be reached at bmontgomery40@gmail.com.