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Dogwoods are for the birds
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
As I was touring the landscape of an Southeastern college, I noticed that everywhere I looked was a native dogwood. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This dogwood is for the birds.”
My thought was not too far off because this small tree feeds 28 species of birds, including quails and turkeys. Deer and squirrels also love the fruit, making this tree an all-star for those wanting a backyard wildlife habitat.
The native dogwood has a long history of cultivation going back as far as 1731. Botanically speaking, the native dogwood is known as Cornus florida. This Latin name says it all about our treasured little tree.
“Cornus” means tough or durable wood, and indeed in our country’s history it has been used in a variety of ways, from tool handles to wheel hubs. You might think the “florida” gives reference to it being native of that state, but in reality it refers to the showy white flowers that are actually bracts or modified leaves.
Unfortunately, the common name “dogwood” does not have a very romantic origin. It came from England where another species of Cornus was used to make a concoction to wash mangy dogs.
The species is, in fact, native to Florida and 32 other states, as far west as Texas and as far north as Ontario, Canada. Gardeners in western states relish their beauty as they also do their native species, the Cornus nuttallii or Pacific dogwood. The flowering dogwood is the state tree of both Missouri and Virginia.
While we stand in awe at their picturesque springtime beauty, they can be enjoyed now as well. In some areas, they are as exquisite as hollies with bright red, oval-shaped fruits, or drupes. In more northern locales, they exhibit exceptional red color in the fall that can be seen in a forest or landscape from hundreds of yards away.
Select a site with fertile, well-drained soil in partial sunlight and preferably with good air movement. Trees that face prolonged drought do need extra water to maintain their vigor. I have planted bare-root dogwoods and those nursery-grown in containers and have found that a container-grown plant is by far the easiest to get established.
While flowering dogwoods and Pacific dogwoods are the showiest native species, the rough leaf dogwood Cornus drummondii is the wildlife champ, feeding 40 species of birds. Nature lovers should couple some of these at the edge of a forested lot. They are a great food source for local wildlife.
The dogwood’s small stature makes it ideal for today’s smaller urban landscapes. It makes an incredible partner with redbuds, azaleas, forsythias and camellias. An investigative search will reveal more varieties or named selections than you ever imagined, including a healthy supply of pink-flowered dogwoods.
So when someone tells you the dogwood is for the birds say, “Yes, I know. About 28 species to be exact!”.