Dogwoods Offer Winter, Spring and Fall Color

Tree Types Are Structural Plants, but Don't Underestimate Bush Forms

Branch of dogwood tree with white blooms.
William Manning/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

It would be hard to pick a "best in show" from among the dogwoods (Cornus genus), because they boast such an impressive diversity. Some types take the form of trees and are valued as structural plants (due to their interesting branching patterns), while also furnishing your landscaping with colorful spring flowers and fall foliage. But don't limit your choices to the trees.

The fact is, bush-form dogwoods have plenty to offer your landscaping in their own right (as I'll explain...MORE below), and some of the tree-form types spend the early part of their life looking a lot like shrubs. And just when you think the Cornus genus has shown you all it's got, it pulls a rabbit out of its hat and reveals an anomaly. I'm talking about that tiny mutt, bunchberry, who insists on running with the big dogs.

Are you ready to be surprised by the dogwoods? Well, let's get going then. I have some choices to tell you about:

  • 01 of 06
    Pink dogwood flower (image) is a reassuring symbol of mid-spring. This is a Cornus florida.
    Pink dogwood flower: spring's four-pronged campaign of color. David Beaulieu

    When North Americans hear "dogwoods," what may first come to mind are trees with beautiful pink flowers. These trees bloom while we're still eagerly craving any kind of blossoms in the yard after the long winter. Their good timing in this regard wins them a special place in our hearts.

    The so-called "flowering dogwoods" (Cornus florida) are North American natives. You have more than one choice if you desire a pink dogwood for your own yard, including:

    • C. florida var. Rosea (for...MORE information on which click on the picture, as I advise you to do for all the entries on this page)
    • C. florida var. Rubra
    • C. florida 'Cherokee Chief'

    But one of the points I want to make clear in this article is that it's not all about the flowers. The various types of dogwoods boast their own signature features that make them interesting even when not in flower. In the case of Cornus florida, there are two such features:

    1. They are outstanding structural plants
    2. Their leaves can exhibit good fall color

    By "outstanding structural plants" I refer especially to their attractive branching pattern, which is more horizontal than on most trees. Any tree can be considered a structural plant, but specimens that offer a little something extra, some unusual characteristic, carry additional value.

    Structural plants and other components of a garden's "bones" or structure (e.g., hardscape) are important elements of your landscaping. They may take a subsidiary role as backdrops or framing when the yard is alive with flowering shrubs and perennials, or they may assume center stage when these complementary plants have taken a back seat. The latter scenario occurs during Northern winters, which is why those of us who landscape in frosty climes may have the most reason to be appreciative of structural plants.

  • 02 of 06
    Picture of 'Wolf Eyes' dogwood. Wolf Eyes is a variegated Japanese dogwood (kousa).
    Picture of 'Wolf Eyes' dogwood. Wolf Eyes is a variegated Japanese dogwood (kousa). David Beaulieu

    As popular as Cornus florida is among the dogwoods, it must be content with sharing the limelight with another tree-form plant in this genus: Cornus kousa (Japanese dogwood). As with Cornus florida, the novice may grow Japanese dogwoods primarily for their flowers. But old pros value them for some of their less obvious traits, as well. For example, some types bear good fall color.

    I grow a type named 'Wolf Eyes' (picture), myself. It's a small tree (10 feet when it matures) that grows...MORE slowly, essentially functioning as a shrub for a number of years after installation. In fall its leaves pick up a pink tinge at the margin.

    Even the novice could tell by looking that kousa dogwoods are related to flowering dogwoods. But for all their similarities, C. kousa does differ from its American cousin:

    • It blooms a bit later
    • The flowers taper to more of a point
    • Its berries are not smooth like the berries on C. florida
    • The branching pattern is generally not as horizontal
  • 03 of 06
    Redtwig dogwood lights up your winter landscaping. Photo shows a red dogwood with snow in front.
    Redtwig dogwood lights up your winter landscaping. David Beaulieu

    The next two examples on my list fall firmly into the shrub category. They also offer your landscaping something quite different from the types of dogwoods considered so far: colorful bark. Thus the common names "red-twig" and "yellow-twig" dogwoods. This bark color is most apparent in winter and in early spring, when there are no leaves on the branches to obscure the view. Color may even intensify in spring.

    I grow a type of red-twig that has variegated leaves.

  • 04 of 06
    My picture of yellow-twig dogwood shows its white spring blooms.
    Picture: yellow-twig dogwoods bear white blooms in spring, yellow bark in winter. David Beaulieu

    As with red-twig (above), so with the yellow-twig dogwoods: these are not one-dimensional specimens. They are rightly named for the unusual color of their bark, but they are not lacking in other noteworthy features. They have white flowers in spring, which are succeeded in summer by white berries. The flowers give a flat-top look, as some of you may be more familiar with through perennials like yarrow.

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06
    Picture of Golden Shadow leaves in spring, when they contain some copper.
    Picture of the leaves when they first appear in spring, showing a tinge of copper. David Beaulieu

    Pagoda dogwoods (Cornus alternifolia) have a branching pattern that is strongly horizontal, making these small trees good structural plants. The type that I grow (Golden Shadows) may be at its most interesting in spring, though, due to another of its features.

    No, it's not the spring flowers I have in mind so much as the spring foliage. You heard me right: although the fall-foliage season gets all the ink, generally speaking, some plants do have a spring-foliage season. Another such plant...MORE that comes to mind is the ornamental kiwi vine.

    Although classified as a tree, Golden Shadows will function as a shrub in your landscaping the first several years. In fact, its horizontal branching pattern is so pronounced that it will initially remind you of a ground cover.

  • 06 of 06
    As my photo shows, bunchberry (a type of dogwood) is a short plant, not a tree or shrub.
    Underdog: bunchberry is a sub-shrub in the Cornus genus. David Beaulieu

    Those of us who are thoroughly entranced by the plant world are always on the lookout for the little surprises that nature hurls our way. Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, a native plant in my region, New England) is one of these plant anomalies that throws us off guard -- in the best possible way.

    What's so surprising about bunchberry? Well, one expects a discussion about dogwoods to be limited to trees and, perhaps, bushes. But bunchberry is a runt. Yes, some say that, technically, it's an...MORE herbaceous "subshrub," but only a botanist or a garden writer would think of it in those terms. For the average person, bunchberry will be a "wildflower."

    To learn about other native plants I've observed on my hikes, see Wildflowers of New England.

     

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