The Dogwood Tree

Written by Gayle Fisher

What a beautiful world we live in, and finally spring is here. Let’s forget about what a miserable cold winter we have had, freezing and thawing then freezing again. But now we know spring is here since dogwood blossoms have arrived. 

In April, we have another type of blizzard, one of thousands of beautiful pastel petals from our dogwood trees, Cornus florida. They supply us with white and pink flowers in the spring and burgundy fall foliage with bright red berries. Birds love the berries, and mine don’t stay around long. 

The name dogwood originated in Europe. The bark of one of the European species was boiled in water and used for washing dogs suffering from mange. Wonder if this would work for fleas? The dogwood also served in the field of medicine at one time. Dogwood bark was used as a fever medicine before quinine came into general use.

The flowers are rather insignificant, but the bracts surrounding each flower head puts on quite a show. This is a native tree with white blooms that we see growing along our Interstates, planted in our yards, the edge of the woods, and my favorite, along unkempt fencerows. Dogwoods growing in the woods are an understory tree and have a more open growth habit with fewer blooms than those grown in the full sun or a cultivar. If you don’t have this tree, you still have time to plant one this spring. This small tree can grow to a height of 40 feet and just as broad. 

Choose a location where the roots can stay evenly moist with slightly acid soil. To give your tree a good start, make sure you plant them at the same height that they were growing. Don’t let the roots dry out, and put them where water is readily available for the first two years.

The dogwood tree blooms before the leaves unfurl. This gives the  appearance
of white blooms hanging in mid-air, making them even more dramatic. I have flown into Knoxville when the dogwoods were blooming, and from the sky, the sight is breathtaking. Our world is dotted with pure white, standing out in stark contrast to the early greening of the earth.

The number one killer of Dogwoods is the lawn mower or weed eater. Trees planted with grass growing right up to the trunk usually get a nick from the lawn mower weekly. This leaves the bark cut and provides an opening that can be attacked by borers. Keeping a 2 foot or wider mulched area around the base of the tree quickly solves this problem. The mulch keeps the soil moist and cool as well as adding organic matter. Dogwoods need an inch of water per week when the temperature is 90˚and above. Pine needles or chopped oak leaves make great mulch since they encourage acid conditions that the dogwoods like most. Mulch makes mowing easier and saves the dogwood from injury. 

The disease that is destroying our beautiful dogwoods in the Smoky Mountains is anthracnose. There is no cure for this disease, and we have experienced a large loss in our National forests. Trees affected have deformed

leaves with purple edge spots or tan 

blotches. This disease kills twigs and 

causes water sprouts (overly vigorous

upright shoots). Trees that have anthrac-nose start dying from the top down. 

The TN Agricultural Experiment Station researched which dogwood trees were most likely to contract anthracnose. 

1) Trees growing close to streams. Trees
     that were within 65 feet caught the
     disease more quickly. 

2) Trees at elevations above 1,590 feet
     were more susceptible to anthra-
     cnose. This is why we see tree loss
     throughout the Appalachian
     Mountain range.

 3) Trees growing on a north-facing slope
     or on the north side of the house.
     This was because the longer the
     leaf stays wet, the greater chance of
     contracting anthracnose. 

4) Trees growing in the shade were more
     likely to contract the disease.

Choosing disease- and mildew-resistant dogwoods gives you a great chance at success. Read the tag of your newly purchased plant. 

It was in Tennessee that the famous first red dogwood cultivar, ‘Cherokee Chief’, was developed. We also have the honor of the first commercial propagation of dogwoods from native seeds. Hoskins A. Shadow successfully produced dogwoods on a large scale. The Shadow family still has strong ties to family, kin and friends here in McMinn. The ‘Cherokee Chief’ series also includes ‘Cherokee Sunset’ and ‘Cherokee Daybreak’. 

Other good choices not in the Cherokee cultivar are ‘Apple Blossom’ and ‘Cloud Nine’. Chinese dogwood, Cornus Kousa, open later than our native ones, and blooms after the tree has leafed out. They are rarely ruined by a late freeze, and the bracts can last for up to six weeks. This Chinese cousin is a good choice, but I can’t bear waiting two extra weeks in the spring to have my dogwoods bloom.

Written by Gayle Fisher

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