Plant of the Month: Pacific Dogwood
Pacific Dogwood is a showy northwest native tree that blooms from late April to late May. It’s just one of the dogwoods native to North America. The grove of dogwoods above was photographed last May along California Route 32 near Forest Ranch.
One of my memories of spring in West Virginia, where I grew up, is hillsides dotted with dogwood trees in bloom. Their showy white bracts, which look like giant petals, appear about the time the leaves are starting to unfold. The eastern species, Cornus florida, is commonly planted in home landscapes across North America.
Both the native white-flowered form and various cultivars with pink flowers (bracts) are attractive, showy small trees. Late in the summer they bear shiny red berries that many species of birds find delicious. My dad planted dogwood in our backyard, where it thrived and I photographed it more than 20 years after he died.
In the Pacific Northwest our native is Pacific Dogwood, Cornus nuttallii. It also blooms in the spring, about the time its leaves appear. It’s found in the wild through much of the northwest, generally west of the Cascade crest, from British Columbia to northern California.
The showy white bracts on our northwest species are generally larger and more numerous than on the east coast species. However, there usually aren’t as many flowers on each tree and the trees are more widely scattered in the landscape.
Pacific Dogwood has a reputation of being somewhat difficult to get established in the garden. It requires soil that is deep, well-drained, relatively free of rocks, and high in organic nutrients. It’s an understory tree that grows well in partial shade. In fact, some sources say it grows best where the trunk is shaded and the upper canopy receives more sun. Once you’ve planted it in your garden, don’t disturb the soil around it. You’ll want to choose a location where you can enjoy the flowers, which look great against a background of conifers.
In midsummer fleshy clusters of berries replace the flowers. In the fall, the leaves turn a nice shade of reddish-orange. Although it may be difficult to get established, Pacific Dogwood is a beautiful tree that will provide rewards for decades. You can find more information about Pacific Dogwood in Hansen’s Northwest Native Plant Database and from the Washington Native Plant Society.
If your thumb isn’t quite so green, consider planting ‘Eddie’s White Wonder,’ a hybrid between Cornus nuttallii and C. florida developed in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s easier to grow, has the large bracts of the Pacific Dogwood and the flower volume of the eastern species. It has shown some resistance to the foliage disease, anthracnose, but is not completely immune. It’s on the Great Plant Picks list for northwest gardens.