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A Comprehensive Guide to Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) is a tree that is native to the south-central, mid-west, and eastern United States, and the province of Ontario in Canada. This plant is a host to the Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon), the Io Moth (Automeris io), and the Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia). Growing from 15 to 40 feet tall, this species has white, pink, green, to yellow flowers that bloom from March to May. It is hardy in zones 5-9.

Taxonomy and Naming of the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Herbarium specimen of flowering dogwood (Cornus florida).
Herbarium Specimen — Cornus florida L. collected in United States of America by The New York Botanical Garden (licensed under CC BY 4.0)

Taxonomy

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) was originally named and described by Carl von Linnaeus in Species Plantarum (1753). It 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). The species name, florida, is Latin for flower and refers to the distinctive flowers.

Common Name and Alternative Names

The common name (flowering) describes the distinctive white flowers, which are actually colorful bracts. “Dogwood” comes from a former use of the wood for making dags or skewers (Hollinshead 1936).

Physical Description of Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Close-up of flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) flower.
Flower of Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) — Miller Jan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Description

  • Plant Type: This plant is a deciduous tree.
  • Height: 15 to 40 feet
  • Stem: This plant has a trunk that is broken into squarish blocks when mature.
  • Leaves: The leaves are opposite, simple, entire, and cuneate to ovate in shape. The leaves are 3 to 6 inches long and about 3 to 6 inches wide.
  • Flower color: white, pink, green, to yellow
  • Blooming period: This plant blooms from March to May.
  • Fruiting type and period: This plant fruits with red berries in the late summer.

Range of Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) in the United States and Canada

Range map of flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) 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 tree is native to the south-central, mid-west, and eastern United States and the province of Ontario. It is considered to be rare in the states of Maine and Vermont and in the province of Ontario.

Habitat

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

This species grows in rich forests, woodlands, floodplains, and wetlands such as marshes and swamps. In Louisiana, it has been found on calcareous forests and prairies (MacRoberts and MacRoberts 1993).

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.

Frequently Asked Questions about Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

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 a number of pharmaceutical uses including pain relief (quinine), skin disorders, throat problems, and stomach issues. It has also been used for tools.

How is this plant distinguished from other dogwoods?

This species can separated from other members of the dogwoods (Cornus spp.) by the large white floral bracts that make this species distinctive. The Japanese dogwood (Cornus kousa) also has these bracts, but whereas the Japanese dogwood has acute apices on the bracts, the flowering dogwood has rounded apices (Weakley 2022).

Is this plant invasive?

This plant has not been shown to be invasive in the literature and is often cultivated for landscaping.

What are some interesting facts about this plant?

The wood of this tree, besides being used for skewers, was also used for shuttles in the weaving industry in New England. In the 1920s nearly 90% of dogwood wood was being used for shuttles (Conner 1992). Later, shuttles were made out of plastic, reducing the need for dogwood.

Gardening with Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

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Print of leaves and fruit of flowering dogwood (Cornus florida).
Print of Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) — Mary Vaux Walcott, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hardiness

This species is hardy in zones 5-9. 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. This plant also needs well-drained soil and can be susceptible to the anthracnose virus.

Cultivars of this Species

This species is often used in landscaping resulting in a large number of cultivars. Some of these include (University of Minnesota):

  • ‘Cherokee Chief’: cultivar with red bracts (NC Extension Gardener).
  • ‘First Lady’: cultivar that has a brilliant green and golden foliage (Wyman 1969).
  • ‘Magnifica’: cultivar with extra large bracts (Arnold Arboretum 1956).
  • ‘Purple Splendor’: cultivar that has maroon to red-purple foliage with a green background (Wyman 1969).
  • ‘Pygmy’: dwarf cultivar that grows to 4 feet high (Wyman 1967).
  • ‘Rainbow’: cultivar having multi-colored leaves (Hebb 1973).
  • ‘Springtime’: early blooming cultivar with 5 inch flowers and purple color in the fall (Wyman 1967).
  • ‘Sweetwater Red’: cultivar with red flowers and red foliage (NC Extension Gardener).
  • ‘Welch’s Junior Miss’: cultivar with deep red bracts and white base (Wyman 1969).
  • ‘Welchii’: cultivar with green leaves and pink with white bracts (NC Extension Gardener).

There are many more cultivars of this species.

References

  • Arnold Arboretum. 1956. Arboretum Spring Planting Notes. 16 (4): 21.
  • Conner, Shelia. 1992. The Flying Dogwood Shuttle. Arnoldia 52: 17-20.
  • Hebb, Robert S. 1973. Plant Registrations. Arnoldia 33 (3): 199-209.
  • Hollinshead, Martha H. 1936. Trailing the Dogwood. Torreya 36 (2): 37-40.
  • Weakley, A.S., and Southeastern Flora Team 2022. Flora of the southeastern United States. University of North Carolina Herbarium, North Carolina Botanical Garden.
  • Wyman, Donald. 1969. Plant Registrations. Arnoldia 29 (1): 1-8.
  • Wyman, Donald. 1967. More Plant Registrations. Arnoldia 27 (8): 61-66.
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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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