Plant of the Month: Cornus florida
A native plant brightening up the Arboretum and much of the local landscape is the ever endearing flowering dogwood, Cornus florida. In April and May this small native tree puts on a flowering show throughout much of the Eastern United States.
Interestingly enough, the flowers of the flowering dogwood are quite inconspicuous, tiny yellow-green knobs clustered tightly together between four, large, petal-like bracts. Flower bracts are available in shades of pink or red in cultivation, though the species color is typically white. These showy floral appendages are undoubtedly what make this tree so treasured, but C. florida has many more landscape attributes.
Flowers of C. florida transform into ravishing red fruits in late summer, a favorite of wildlife, though inedible for humans. In autumn, foliage turns hues of deep red and purple, creating another seasonal spectacle. With age C. florida develops horizontal, tier-like branching and a flattened top, adding unique character and further improving the presentation of this tree in flower. Older trees also develop alligator hide-like bark, which paired with an elegant silhouette make this tree a stand out in the winter too.
Naturally occurring from Maine to Florida, C. florida is typically found as an understory plant, and along forest margins. C. florida prefers rich, moist, well drained soil, and part-shade, though plants can tolerate full sun, and a range of soil conditions. With great ornamental and ecological value, as well as broad adaptability, this tree is worthy of consideration in gardens in the city, suburbs, and countryside. The versatile nature of C. florida allows use as a specimen, or small grouping in lawns, around homes and patios, in meadows or woodland gardens, grown in sun or shade.
In the words of woody plant authority Michael Dirr, C. florida is “the aristocrat of small flowering trees,” “the envy of every landscape plant,” and “a superb specimen that will never go out of style.” Two of my favorite C. florida specimens at the Scott Arboretum grace the lawn outside the Martin Biological Laboratory: C. florida var. rubra, with reddish-pink bracts that open flat, and C. florida ‘Pluribracteata’, whose somewhat cupped double bracts, have a tinge of red at the base. Both of these plants have exquisite form and flowers (bracts) – aristocratic indeed. Plan a trip to the Scott Arboretum today and you can enjoy all these lovely flowers and more firsthand!