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In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. North Carolinians know it’s not truly spring until the

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In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. North Carolinians know it’s not truly spring until the

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In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. North Carolinians know it’s not truly spring until the

Our State Knows Best: Dogwoods

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.


North Carolinians know it’s not truly spring until the dogwoods bloom. The showy and beautiful dogwood tree became the state flower — we know, we know — in 1941, but the pops of white scattered along the edges of woods across the state have been a welcome herald of warmer weather since long before that.

“As we travel down the road and look out into our woodlands and see those white flowers, they make us happy,” says Cyndi Lauderdale, North Carolina State University horticulture extension agent for Wilson County. “Knowing that the sun is back out and warm weather is ahead gives us a reason to love the tree.”

We asked Lauderdale and two other experts — Mac Franklin, director of horticulture at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville, and Nick Duffy, a master arborist in Pisgah Forest — to share their tips for growing the tree that sparks pride in the hearts of North Carolinians everywhere. Here’s what you need to know.

Our experts

 

Cyndi Lauderdale
North Carolina State University Horticulture Extension Agent for Wilson County
Mac Franklin
Director of Horticulture at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville
Nick Duffy
Master Arborist in Pisgah Forest

How many different varieties of dogwoods grow in North Carolina?

Cyndi Lauderdale: There are four dogwoods that are somewhat native to North Carolina, but when we think dogwood, we think Cornus florida, which is our showy dogwood tree. The other three are typically shrubbier and don’t have the large flowers, but can still be ornamental.

Nick Duffy: Cornus florida is the flowering dogwood; that’s your traditional variety. But there are lots of other types. Some are native and some aren’t; kousa dogwoods are common to see in our landscape — they’re from Asia.

Do some varieties grow best in different parts of the state?

Cyndi Lauderdale: Yes! Cornus florida would probably do a little better in our Piedmont and mountains than in eastern North Carolina. The dogwood that does best in eastern North Carolina is not a native — it’s Cornus kousa. That one does take a little more sun and drought than our native dogwood.

Nick Duffy: As far as Cornus florida, they’ll do well in most of the state of North Carolina. Probably the only placesthat they’re not going to do well are swamps and the Outer Banks.

We’ve selected our variety — now let’s get down to business. What is the No. 1 thing we should know about growing dogwoods?

Cyndi Lauderdale: Where our native dogwood typically lives — that is, in the understory of our woodlands, so it’s going to need partial shade, acidic soil, and higher organic matter than we have in a typical home yard. People should think about where this plant is growing natively, and then if they want it in their yard, how to try to make it as much like a woodland as possible. That might mean planting larger trees to provide some shade to the dogwood, and maybe mulching to try to keep the soil cooler — that will also increase your organic matter as the mulch breaks down. One way to be a good gardening steward is to select some cultivars that are bred to be a little showier or do better in a garden. Plant breeders could breed for a larger native flowering dogwood, or for drought hardiness. So then it might be a better fit for a traditional urban landscape.

Mac Franklin: [The dogwood is] a nice native selection for the home landscape, and it gives a beautiful spring bloom, but that varies from one end of the state to the other as far as the timing of the bloom. Way east, they may start in really late March, but it’s mostly April through May across the state.

Nick Duffy: I think being aware of their culture — what their ideal growing conditions are. Dogwoods are a pretty resilient tree in that they’ll live in a broad range of areas, but there are certain areas that they’re definitely not going to do well in, and they do have specific requirements for soil. And [in a yard], they definitely need more care than in the woods.

OK, so planting them in the right spot is key. How do you know the perfect place to plant?

Mac Franklin: They naturally occur on woodland edges and in the understory with dappled shade. You want good air circulation, but not a high-wind area, with some protection, and morning and afternoon sun. You want good, loamy, well-drained soil that retains moisture.

Now that we’ve got them planted, what’s next? How high-maintenance are dogwoods?

Mac Franklin: I would call them a low-maintenance plant, especially because it’s a native species. If you’re planting one, of course, there’s an establishment period when you’re going to have to water it about once weekly to keep good soil moisture around the root ball, whether it be balled and burlapped or container-grown. Once you put it in the ground, you’re going to have to watch the water on it. But once it establishes, it’s a very low-maintenance tree.

Nick Duffy: I would not describe them as a crazy high-maintenance plant, but they’re not a plant-it-and-forget-it species, either. You’ll need to manage foliar diseases, particularly anthracnose and powdery mildew. Anthracnose is probably the most common issue that we deal with on dogwoods. There are a couple of different kinds of anthracnose, but the treatment’s basically the same. It’s a foliar application; we treat three to four times a season, and we get really good results with that. It’s really common in the mountains where I am. A lot of disease pressure has to do with rainfall, and where I am in Transylvania County, we get a ton of rainfall. It’s actually considered a temperate rainforest here. A lot of things grow here because of that, but it’s a perfect breeding ground for foliar diseases.

What about pruning?

Nick Duffy: Periodic pruning is important. I recommend pruning out dead branches, crossing branches, poorly attached branches, and infected branches every few years. But outside of that, dogwoods don’t respond to heavy pruning. They grow horizontally and have a really open canopy, and when they’re flowering, that’s what makes them so beautiful. Understanding their natural form and habit is important to doing a good job pruning.

We want flowers and we want them now! At what age does a dogwood start blooming?

Mac Franklin: Fairly young. Usually when you’re buying a dogwood, they’re at least four to five years old, and they can bloom in their containers. So within five years of growth, you should begin to see some blooms on them.

Any little-known facts about dogwoods?

Cyndi Lauderdale: The flowers of the dogwood tree are those little greenish-yellow center parts. We think of the white showy part as the flower, but it’s not. It’s actually a bract, which is a modified leaf. It’s the same thing with poinsettias — the flowers are those little yellow things in the center, and the red showy things are called bracts.

Here in North Carolina, we love our dogwoods! Why do you think they’re so beloved?

Cyndi Lauderdale: We’re trying to appreciate our native plants more. It also has four seasons of interest: Even in the winter, when it doesn’t have leaves, it has a nice branching structure. Then you get the flowers before the leaves come on. In the summer, you have the green leaves. Then, depending on where it’s located, it can have fall colors, too. Four seasons of interest definitely makes a plant loved by gardeners.

Nick Duffy: Definitely the flowers. I’m personally a fan of properties where people plant them in clusters. A single dogwood that’s doing well is certainly beautiful, but when they’re planted as a mass planting in an understory or at the edge of a woodline — I don’t think anything’s prettier than a blanket of white in the woods. And because they flower before a lot of the large shade trees are fully leafed out, there’s this pretty effect in the woods in the springtime — if you’re driving through a wooded area that has a lot of dogwoods, it almost looks like snow in the woods. And probably one of my favorite things about dogwoods that’s underappreciated is they actually have good fall color.

And now for the most important question: What’s your favorite color — white, pink, or yellow?

Cyndi Lauderdale: White. I think it’s very universal. You can use white in any garden — it’s definitely very showy.

Mac Franklin: The classic white. When you view a native dogwood in bloom with a woodland backdrop, the white color is the most radiant, and the most noticeable from a distance. It really stands out, more so than the yellow or the pink.

Nick Duffy: White for sure. That’s the way they are in nature, and as an arborist, when you gain an intimate knowledge of tree species, you gain an appreciation for the way they are, unaltered. We engineer trees to have all sorts of traits, but there’s nothing like the original. A lot of the pink dogwoods that you see are bred varieties. Most of the ones you see in the woods are white, and a white flowering dogwood in nature is hard to beat.

This story was published on Mar 16, 2021

Rebecca Woltz

Rebecca was a spring 2021 editorial intern at Our State.