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A Comprehensive Guide to Alternate-leaf Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Alternate-leaf Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) is a tree that is native to the mid-west and eastern United States and Canada. This plant is a host to the Spring Azure butterfly (Celastrina ladon) and the Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia). Growing from 10 to 15 feet tall, this species has yellow to white flowers that bloom from April to June It is hardy in zones 3-7.

Taxonomy and Naming of the Alternate-leaf Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Herbarium specimen of alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia).
Herbarium Specimen — Cornus alternifolia L.f. collected in United States of America by The New York Botanical Garden (licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Taxonomy

Alternate-leaf Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) was originally named and described by the son of Carl von Linnaeus, who goes by Carl Linnaeus the younger, in 1782. This species has kept the same name since and is a member of the Dogwood Family (Cornaceae).

Meaning of the Scientific and Common Names

Scientific Name

The genus name, Cornus, is from the Latin word “cornu,” which means horn (Missouri Botanical Garden) and refers to the toughness of the wood. The species name, alternifolia, is Latin for “alternate,” in reference to the alternative leaves of this species, which is unusual in the genus.

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name comes from the alternative leaf arrangement. Other common names include Pagoda Dogwood, Cornel (Hough 1894) and Green Osier (Bailey and Bailey 1976).

Physical Description of Alternate-leaf Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

White flowers of alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia).
Flowers of Alternate-leaf Dogwood (Cornus alternfiolia) — Laval University, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Description

  • Plant Type: This plant is a deciduous small tree or large shrub.
  • Height: 15 to 25 (30) feet tall
  • Stem: This plant has dark gray bark with ridges.
  • Leaves: The leaves are alternate or whorled at the end of the twig, simple, entire, and elliptic, lance-oval to ovate in shape. The leaves are 1 to 3 inches long and about 1 to 3 inches wide.
  • Flower color: yellow to white
  • Blooming period: This plant blooms from April to June.
  • Fruiting type and period: This plant fruits with blue, green, or white berries in the summer.

Range of Alternate-leaf Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) in the United States and Canada

Range map of alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus alternfolia) in the United States and Canada.
Range Map Credit: Kartesz, J.T., The Biota of North America Program (BONAP). 2023.(website https://bonap.org/). Chapel Hill, N.C. [maps generated from Kartesz, J.T. 2023. Floristic Synthesis of North America, Version 1.0. Biota of North America Program (BONAP). (in press)]

This species is native to the mid-west and eastern United States and Canada.

Habitat

Mid-Atlantic mixed hardwood forest in Delaware.
Mixed Hardwood Forest — Author Image

This species grows in mesic forests.

Hosted Insects

Spring azure butterfly on leaf.
Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) — ALAN SCHMIERER, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species is a host for the Spring Azure Butterfly (Celastrina ladon), the Io Moth (Automeris io), and the Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia).

Other Supported Wildlife

House sparrow on log.
House Sparrow — Mathias Appel, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species is a nectar source to other butterflies, skippers, and bees. It is also a food source for birds in the late summer and fall.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Alternate-leaf Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Is this plant deer resistant?

The NC Extension Gardener shows that this plant is deer resistant.

Does this plant have any ethnobotanical uses?

The Native American Ethobotanical Database shows that this plant has been used for medicines, weapons, decorations, building materials, and for hunting and fishing.

How is this plant distinguished from other dogwoods?

This dogwood species is distinguished from others by the alternate-leaf arrangement on the stem. All other species of dogwoods in North America have opposite leaves. One other dogwood, Cornus controversa has alternate leaves (Arnold Arboretum 1923).

Is this plant invasive?

This plant has not been shown to be invasive in the literature.

What are some interesting facts about this plant?

This shrub species is prized for its brilliant red stems in the winter.

Gardening with Alternate-leaf Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Add Alternate-leaf Dogwood to Your Garden

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Black fruits of alternate-leaf dogwood (Cornus alternifolia).
Fruits of Alternate-leaf Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) — Laval University, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hardiness

This species is hardy in zones 3-7. If your garden is within these zones and you have the right growing conditions (soil, moisture and exposure), you may well be able to grow this plant. However, if planted outside of its range, the hosted species may not recognize the plant or be harmed by ingesting a different species with an unfamiliar chemical composition.

Optimal Conditions

This species grows best in places that have full sun or partial shade with an emphasis on shade.

Cultivars of this Species

This species is often used in landscaping resulting in a large number of cultivars. This cultivar list comes from Bailey and Bailey 1976, hortguide.com, and the Woody Plants Database at Cornell University:

  • ‘Argentea’: cultivar with white marked leaves and shrub-like habit.
  • ‘Big Chocolate Chip’: cultivar with dark foliage
  • ‘Brunette’: cultivar with reddish-brown stems and dark green leaves
  • ‘Gold Bullion’: cultivar with yellow foliage
  • ‘Golden Shadows’: cultivar with yellow variegated leaves and white margins.
  • ‘Moonlight’: cultivar with white and green leaves and pink margins.
  • ‘Pistachio’: cultivar with dark green foliage and yellowish white flowers.
  • ‘Saya’: cultivar yellow margined leaves.
  • ‘Siberica’: cultivar with large leaves and tree-like habit.

References

  • Arnold Arboretum. 1923. Bulletin of Popular Information – Cornus alternifolia. 9 (12): 48.
  • Bailey, Liberty Hyde and Ethel Zoe Bailey. 1976. Hortus Third. (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company).
  • Hough, Romeyn B. 1894. The American Woods Part IV. (Lowville, NY: Self-Published).
  • Weakley, A.S., and Southeastern Flora Team 2022. Flora of the southeastern United States. University of North Carolina Herbarium, North Carolina Botanical Garden.
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Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe

Robert Coxe is a professional ecologist and botanist who has worked as the State Ecologist of Delaware and as an ecologist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. He is also a former Past-President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. He currently is an innkeeper at McMullen House Bed & Breakfast LLC and a web designer and owner for Silphium Design LLC.

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