native Dogwood trees in the woods

Dogwood Trees: History and Growth Habits

Dogwoods are trees native to Eastern North America, and they usually grow in semi-shady areas along the edge of mostly hardwood forests. They are considered to be the most magnificent of all the native flowering trees in the eastern United States by Bower & Branch. 

Dogwoods can grow up to 20 to 35 feet tall, and sometimes even taller. They are generally single-trunked trees, but they are also grown as multi-trunked trees, as well as low-branched forms. 

Primarily, Dogwoods are "Understory Trees," which means they naturally grow under, below, or next to larger shade-providing hardwood trees. They prefer to be on the "edge" of the forest where there may be less competition for sunlight but at the same time, enough filtered shade to provide protection from the hot and sunny days of summer.

I have been growing Dogwoods for over 40 years, and I have discovered that they prefer evenly moist but not wet soil. When I say evenly moist, it means that the soil should not be powdery dry at any time. The key to Dogwood health and success is to manage the water content throughout all seasons and provide afternoon shade relief wherever it is planted. As Dogwood growers in the nursery or in our backyards, our job is to mimic the growing environment preferred as an understory tree.

To understand what it feels like for an understory tree, look next spring when the leaves and flowers begin to appear in the forest, well before the large hardwood trees leaf out. Understory Trees are usually quicker to grow each spring, capturing available sunlight and rain before the giants take the lion's share. Dogwoods may prefer a more organically rich soil, a heavily composted soil that provides strong support through a living and robust relationship between the tree and the soil. They benefit from living soil organisms that help defend against ever-present pests and diseases.

Lesson 1: During early spring, Dogwood trees require full sunlight and abundant water. 

Another important lesson to learn about growing Dogwood trees is that during the summer months, they should be treated as an understory tree. This means they need filtered shade, cooler temperatures, and more evenly moist soil conditions, which can be provided by the larger trees in the area. 

Lesson 2 - The ideal planting location for dogwoods is an area that receives filtered afternoon shade to nearly full shade. This is because it extends the availability of soil moisture, provides rest from direct sunlight in the afternoon, and creates a cooler environment. 

As growers, we should aim to replicate nature's natural systems. Understory trees, like dogwoods, don't usually benefit much from summer rain showers or mists. In fact, they would need heavy or prolonged rainfall to be able to moisten forest soils thoroughly. Once these soils are moistened, they can then retain moisture for a longer period of time.

Lesson 3 - When it comes to watering Dogwood trees, it's important to give them a good, deep soak. To help the soil retain water for a longer period, provide a generous amount of compost and organic matter. However, it's equally important to give the trees periods of lower moisture, without letting the soil become too dry. This can help break the cycle of pests and diseases and act as a natural defense mechanism.

Today, Dogwoods are a popular choice for landscape trees. They are available in numerous new hybrids that offer various spring colors, stunning variegated foliage, small or dwarf growing selections, and even some that have higher resistance to pests and diseases.

Although Dogwoods are now solely cultivated for gardens and landscapes, throughout history, they have been a source of much more than just beauty with some fun facts too:

- During the Civil War, people used Dogwood bark to make tea, which was used to treat pain and other illnesses. Dogwood bark is known to have antimalarial qualities and was used to stop the spread of malaria. The bark contained tannin, which is a natural substitute for quinine. 

- Dogwood berries from Cornus mas, a non-showy native yellow flowering Dogwood, are still grown in some parts of Europe for their berries. The berries can be eaten raw or used in making jams and wines.

- Dogwoods are the State Tree of Missouri, the State Flower of North Carolina and both the State Flower and State Tree of Virginia.
- Farmers have a reliable way of knowing when Spring has truly arrived. They observe the flowering of the Dogwood tree, which signals that it is time to start planting the vegetable garden. As a general rule of thumb, the first seeds should be sown when the Dogwoods start to bloom each Spring in your neighborhood.

- Cornus florida dogwoods, also known as Native Dogwoods, provide food for many animals including songbirds, chipmunks, squirrels, skunks, rabbits, deer, and bears. The fruit of the Dogwood tree is known to be a source of food for over 36 species of birds. 

- Native dogwoods can only be grown from seeds collected from dogwoods found in the wild. Typically, native dogwoods are only available in white. Pink native dogwoods are rare from seed, so if you happen to spot a pink dogwood in the forest, you should consider yourself very fortunate.

- Dogwood trees have a strong and hard wood that has been used for making golf clubs and tools over the years. These trees have the ability to withstand breakage when they mature. Interestingly, as Dogwood trees mature, their wood tends to become even stronger. The same is true for their resistance to diseases and pests. As the trees age, they flower reliably and become less susceptible to serious threats from diseases and pests.
    - Dogwoods have been cultivated for over a century, and during that time, numerous new varieties have been introduced. While all of these varieties are valuable in gardens and landscapes, only the Native selection that grows from seed can guarantee benefits for wildlife and provide biodiversity in your local surroundings.

    Today, there are several White Dogwood Hybrids and Varieties available, each with distinct attributes and features. These have been introduced by growers who discovered them in the nursery or through hybridization.

    It's important to note that all Dogwoods, except for the Native White Dogwood, are budded selections. 

    Beyond their beauty, Dogwoods are living legacies that have woven through history, nature, and our cultural landscape. From their origins in the understory to their role in modern landscaping, these trees captivate us with their resilience, historical significance, and ecological importance. As we celebrate their rich heritage and diverse hybrids, let us not forget the native Dogwoods' enduring beauty and biodiversity that enrich our surroundings. Embracing their story means embracing a piece of our shared past and committing to preserving the natural wonders that make life truly worth living.

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