6 Best Dogwoods to Use In Your Landscape

Dwarf Dogwood (Cornus canadensis) or Bunchberry in Olympic National Park, Washington
Ed Reschke / Getty Images

In garden design, flowering shrubs and trees provide a unique role as specimens that provide both structure and ornament. As a structural element, theyhelp form the garden's "bones," serving as a backdrop and frame when the garden is alive with other flowering plants. But flowering shrubs and trees also take center stage at certain times of the year, usually in spring. Especially in northern climates, flowering shrubs and trees serve an essential function as the first sources of color as winter transitions into spring.

The various dogwoods (Cornus spp.) are among the most important flowering woody plants, bridging the line from shrubs to small trees. Some of the dogwoods are generally used as large multi-stemmed shrubs, but others look more like small trees. Other types are regarded as small trees, but they spend their early years looking quite shrub-like. There are even dogwoods that serve more as ground cover plants. And unlike many flowering woody plants, all dogwoods are well-suited to shady conditions.

It is difficult to pick a "best-in-show" from among the dogwoods because the genus boasts such an impressive diversity. But if you're ready to be surprised by the dogwoods, check out the following six best varieties. 

  • 01 of 06

    Flowering Dogwoods (Cornus florida)

    Group of Pink Dogwood Flowers
    JMP Traveler / Getty Images

    One of the most popular of all flowering trees is the flowering dogwood. Cornus florida is a North American native. The species is a 15- to 30-foot tree that blooms with white flowers in April and May, but several variations and cultivars offer pink flowers, including:

    Along with the spring blooms, flowering dogwoods are especially good structural plants for the garden, and they exhibit good fall color—dark green leaves that turn an attractive shade of red. Cornus florida has an attractive branching pattern that is more horizontal than on most trees.

    Like other dogwoods, flowering dogwood benefits from a thick layer of mulch to keep the roots cool.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9
    • Color Varieties: White, pink
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Rich, moist soil; prefers somewhat acidic soil
  • 02 of 06

    'Wolf Eyes' Japanese Dogwood (Cornus kousa 'Wolf Eyes')

    Japanese dogwood wolf eyes

    Dan Keck / Flickr / CC By 1.0

    As a group, the Japanese dogwoods are similar to Cornus florida flowering dogwoods, but have a vase-shaped growth pattern that gradually becomes round with age. 'Wolf Eyes' is a small cultivar, growing to only about 10 feet tall at maturity. Until then, it serves as a shrub in the landscape. Japanese dogwood blooms later than C. Florida, in May and June. The flowers are white tinged with pink and are more tapered and pointed than other flowering dogwoods. Autumn foliage is reddish-purple to deep scarlet.

    During hot weather, give this tree regular water. Japanese dogwood is more disease-resistant than C. florida, making it a good choice in areas where dogwood anthracnose is known to exist.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 8
    • Color Varieties: White, tinged with pink
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Rich, medium moisture, well-drained soil
  • 03 of 06

    Red-Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea, C. alba)

    Red dogwood bush
    juliannafunk / Getty Images

    Two dogwood species carry the common name red-twig dogwood. Cornus sericea is a 6- to 9-foot multi-stemmed shrub that blooms with white flowers in May and June. C. alba, also known as Tatarian dogwood is an 8- to 10-foot shrub with creamy white flowers, also blooming in May and June. For landscape purposes, they serve largely the same function, offering the landscape something quite different from other dogwoods: colorful red bark that is especially apparent in winter when there are no leaves to obscure the view.

    The best color is on new stems, so regularly pruning away larger old stems is a good idea.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 7
    • Color Varieties: White
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Rich, moist soil
  • 04 of 06

    Yellow-Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea cultivars)

    yellow-twig dogwood
    David Beaulieu

    While the native Cornus sericea species has red stems, there are several cultivated varieties that have yellow twigs, including C. sericea 'Budd's Yellow', 'Flaverimea', and 'Silver and Gold'. These yellow-twig dogwoods are grown mostly for their stem color, but they are not lacking in other noteworthy features. They bloom with white flowers in spring, and some varieties have attractive variegated leaves and fruits that attract birds. These are multi-stemmed, 5- to 8-foot shrubs with good fall color.

    Pruning out about 25 percent of the larger stems each spring will rejuvenate growth and promote good stem color.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8 (depends on variety)
    • Color Varieties: Yellowish white, white
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Rich, moist soil
    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

    Dogwood Tree in Springtime
    bkkm / Getty Images

    Pagoda dogwoods, as the name suggests, have a branching pattern that is strongly horizontal, making these small trees good structural plants. One type, 'Golden Shadows', has bright green, variegated foliage. Pagoda dogwood is usually considered a small tree, at 15 to 25 feet when mature, but it will function as a shrub in the first several years of growth. Its horizontal branching pattern is so pronounced that it will initially remind you of a ground cover. Fall foliage is reddish-purple, tinged with green.

    Like many dogwoods, this plant likes relatively cool soil and will appreciate a thick layer of mulch during the warmest months.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 7
    • Color Varieties: Yellowish-white
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Rich, medium moisture soil
  • 06 of 06

    Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)

    Dwarf (Ground) Dogwood in bloom.
    Murphy_Shewchuk / Getty Images

    Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is a dogwood anomaly. While most dogwoods are large shrubs or small trees, bunchberry is technically a herbaceous "subshrub" a woody plant that dies back entirely in winter. This is a very small plant, growing only 3 to 9 inches, although the leaves and flowers look similar to those on larger species of dogwood. For the average person, bunchberry will be viewed as a wildflower or ground cover plant. Fall foliage color is reddish-purple.

    Bunchberry is best suited for naturalized woodland settings. It does not tolerate foot traffic, and it needs cool soil in order to thrive.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 2 to 6
    • Color Varieties: White
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade
    • Soil Needs: Medium moisture, well-drained soil