by BRIAN MINTER
May 31, 2000
When we mention dogwoods, most folks think only of our provincial flower which comes from the native dogwood, 'Cornus nuttallii'. Actually the dogwood family is large and quite diverse. 'Cornus' is the Latin word for shrub. Specific names are given according to individual characteristics or are named after breeders; for example, 'Cornus sanguinea' was so named because its bark is red. Dogwoods have been known by such colourful common names as 'Bloody Twig', 'Wild Cornel', 'Dogberry', 'Hound's Tooth' and 'Gater Tree'.
In the landscape, the dogwood family is very useful. 'Cornus mas' (Cornelian Cherry) is first to bloom. In February and March, it bursts into masses of clustered, small yellow blossoms. Native to southern Europe and the Orient, it's hardy in all parts of the province and grows to about 15 feet in height. It has small, shiny green leaves which turn a delightful yellow and red in the fall, and its autumn colours are enhanced by clusters of bright, edible scarlet fruits which remain on the tree from September until the birds clean them off.
One of the most popular shrub dogwoods is 'Cornus alba' (Tatarian Dogwood), and most varieties are hardy throughout the province. My favourite new bush dogwood, however, is Cornus 'Mid Winter Fire'. It has chartreuse leaves and yellow and red coloured bark that lights up any winter garden. Surprisingly both of these varieties perform equally well in shade or sun, and they are invaluable as contrast plants. In winter the stems of both varieties are attractive, especially against a snowy background. They grow to about eight feet in height and feature fragrant, small white flowers. An occasional pruning will keep them low and attractive.
'Cornus canadensis', which I mentioned earlier, is really a deciduous perennial ground cover. It displays native dogwood-like flowers in May and June atop 6-9 inch leafy stems. In native settings, it can be found under trees and by lakes and streams. Well rotted old logs and areas of decaying bark seem to be some of their favourite growing places. They really are quite attractive, but unless you know just how to get them started, using lots of fine bark mulch, even nursery-grown plants will have difficulty getting established.
There are many other forms of dogwoods, but I think I've made my point: we're overlooking some important members of the dogwood family. I'm truly fond of our western dogwoods (C. nuttallii), but unfortunately, they are having some problems with crown canker and dogwood leaf blotch, diseases related to wet weather. It's important that all dogwoods have good drainage so ali plenty of fine fir or hemlock bark mulch into the soil when you plant. Also, keep the kids away from the trunks, especially if they happen to be pushing a lawn mower. If the bark is damaged, disease will set in and spread more easily.
In wet weather regions, I've really been impressed with the performance of a few varieties. One is 'Cornus kousa'. This multi-stemmed dogwood is native to Japan and Korea and hardy to zone three with a minimum temperature ranging from 13 to -24 F. Growing 20 feet high, it blooms in June and July with delightful flowers which turn into huge red raspberry-like hips in the fall. Its autumn colouring is a knockout, and the other big bonus is its disease resistance.
'Eliie's White Wonder' has also been quite remarkable. Chosen as Vancouver's centennial tree, it has four to five inch flowers at the ends of slightly pendulous branches - it's a winner! Hardy and easy to transplant, it seems to be quite resistant to diseases affecting both the 'nuttallii' and 'florida' varieties.
One of the most spectacular flowering dogwoods right now is Cornus florida Rubra. It's an eastern dogwood that is actually more of a bush than a tree, and it is very useful in the landscape, both as a small shade tree and a nice privacy screen. Its fall colouring and winter stems are also very attractive.
Dogwoods are a very classy, so this year take special note of the many varieties and perhaps find a home for some of them in your landscape.