Horticultural Highlight: Cornus florida

April 30, 2013

Lay my ashes at the foot of a dogwood tree-

Should the tree live, that will be monument enough for me.  

                                                  –   Irvin S. Cobb

Few trees can surpass the striking beauty of Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida in bloom. Many people, gardeners and non-gardeners alike, consider this to be the most beautiful native tree, in the eastern United States. This tree has an extensive natural range, from southern Maine, southern Ontario, and Michigan, to Texas and Florida.  When its flowers have fully expanded, in late April/early May, particularly with advantageous light, they seem to sparkle, shining through the landscape.

Botanists tell us that it’s four, white (sometimes pink), “petals” are not petals, but bracts, which are modified leaves, persisting ornamentally, longer than would most floral petals. Each bract displays a notched tip, and the four bracts are arranged cross-shaped. The true flowers are inconspicuous, greenish-yellow, clustered at the center of the four bracts. Small insects, seeking the nectar, aid in cross fertilization. Beautiful, small clusters (2 to 5), of glossy-red drupes (fruits), ripen in September/October from these flowers.  The fruits are eaten by dozens of species of birds, including common flicker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, downy woodpecker, cedar waxwing, evening grosbeak, and of course, robin, and mockingbird. Additionally, neo-tropical migrants such as red-eyed vireos, Swainson’s, and wood thrushes, especially benefit from the fruits, loaded with energy, needed for their long migration.

Flowering Dogwood, although often growing to just 12 to 20 (30) feet high, displays its flowers with maximum effectiveness, with a distinct flat-topped, horizontal, layered arrangement of branches. The long list of this tree’s admirers stretches back centuries. George Washington (1732-1799) wrote in his diary, in 1785, of planting “a circle of Dogwood … near the South Garden House…” at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) planted it in “the open ground on the west” of his house in Monticello. In the twentieth-century, noted plantsman and author, Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930), wrote in his 1928 book, More Aristocrats of the Trees, “So freely are the white crosses produced that the woodlands in May when viewed from vantage points are filled with seemingly floating drifts of purest white suggesting droves of white butterflies hovering and flitting amid the trees.”  And, “…in a good season… the blossoming of Cornus florida is an event to be classed among the floral spectacles of the world,  …there is no more lovely tree than the flowering dogwood, the envy and despair of English gardeners.” Author, poet, Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906-2001) offered, “After all, I don’t see why I am always asking for private, individual, selfish miracles when every year there are miracles like white dogwood.”

The leaves are egg-shaped, 3 to 6-inches long, rounded at the base, and opposite each other along the stem.  These leaves, with prominent, curving, lateral veins, are often slightly wavy, along their outer margin. When these leaves fall in the autumn, they decompose quickly, enriching the soil with calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and other elements. But before the leaf-fall, there is another conspicuous seasonal display.  Color hues of scarlet-red, to scintillating, reddish- purple, annually provide tremendous, and reliable autumn foliage. In the words of poet, Sam Ragan, “From dogwood white to dogwood red, / That’s the way the summer’s fled.”, or from Kenneth Rexroth, “…The scarlet dogwood leaves, / Most poignant of all.”

On your next visit to Mount Auburn, look for our abundant Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida. With over one-hundred, beautiful trees, throughout the landscape, you will have no trouble finding these native treasures.

…my warm loving heart afire

with early greening leaves,

dogwood branches laced against the sky;

…heralding Resurrection

over and over again…

                                Margaret Walker

 

Some would distinguish nothing here but oaks,

Proud heads conversant with the power and glory

Of heaven’s rays or heaven’s thunderstrokes,…

And yet here’s dogwood: overshadowed, small,

But not inclined to droop and count its losses,

It cranes its way to sunlight after all,

And signs the air of May with Maltese crosses.

                                Richard Wilbur

Come. Now the brightness here might fill you up,

but tomorrow? Who can know what the next

day will bring. It is like that here, in spring.

Four days ago, the dogwood was a fist

in protest. Now look. Even she unfurls

to the pleasure of the season…

Why, even the dogwood,

that righteous tree of God’s, is full of lust

exploding into the brightness every spring.

                                Camille T. Dungy

… a little dogwood tree is losing its mind;

overflowing with blossomfoam,

like a sudsy mug of beer;

like a bride ripping off her clothes,

dropping snow white petals to the ground in clouds,

so Nature’s wastefulness seems quietly obscene.

It’s been doing that all week:

making beauty,

and throwing it away,

and making more.

                                   Tony Hoagland

About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant View all posts by Jim Gorman →

One Comment

  1. Alicia says:

    Jim, I really enjoy your articles every month in the newsletter. I’m so glad that Chris forwards it to me. I especially like the quote about the Dogwood this month. I have told so many people about my guided tour of Mt. Auburn Cemetery. I think ithe grounds are so beautiful and it must be breathtaking this time of year!
    Alicia

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