Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida): Spring's Early Pink, Red, Salmon, or White Pastels

by DerdriuMarriner

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), a New World native flowering tree, gloriously proclaims the arrival of spring with its pastel flowers.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a New World native tree, flowering and deciduous, which ranges from southern Ontario in Canada to throughout the eastern United States. A disjunct population is native to two eastern states of Mexico.

As a predictable harbinger of spring, flowering dogwood steadfastly crowns its twigs with floral buds which promise to burst open into floral magnificence in accordance with nature's plan.

Cornus florida's flowers

"Dogwood flowers, photographed at night"
"Dogwood flowers, photographed at night"

 

Cornus florida is commonly known as flowering dogwood. Its synonymous scientific name, Benthamidia florida (L.) Spach, highlights its subgenus, Benthamidia. Flowering dogwood is in the family Cornaceae, which, among other traits, typically have branches with clusters of flowers on each stem (inflorescence). Cornus florida has two subspecies which distinguish its geographical occurrence.

 

Native distribution of Cornus florida in Canada and the United States

USA (AL, AR, CT, DC, DE, FL, GA, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MA, MD, ME, MI, MO, MS, NC, NH, NJ, NY, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, TN, TX, VA, VT, WV), CAN (ON)
COFL2
COFL2

 

Native to eastern North America, Cornus florida subspecies florida ranges from its northern extent in southern Maine and southern Ontario to its southern extent in northern Florida and west beyond the Florida panhandle all the way into eastern Texas.

A disjunct population thrives in eastern Mexico, in the northeastern state of Nuevo León  (Estado Libre y Soberano de Nuevo León) and in the east-central state of Veracruz (Estado Libre y Soberano de Veracruz de Ignacio de la Llave).

 

With a survivable minimum temperature range of -20° to 20° Fahrenheit; -29° to -7° Celsius, flowering dogwood is placed in U.S. Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.

 

Cornus florida ssp. urbiniana

University of California Botanical Garden, Berkeley, California
University of California Botanical Garden, Berkeley, California

 

The other subspecies, Cornus florida subspecies urbiniana (Rose) Rickett, is native elsewhere in North America:

  • in Estado Libre y Soberano de Nuevo León (“Free and Sovereign State of Nuevo Leon”) and
  • in Estado Libre y Soberano de Veracruz de Ignacio de la Llave (“Free and Sovereign State of Veracruz of Ignacio de la Llave”),

which are in northeastern and east central Mexico, respectively.

This subspecies has a scientific synonym, Cornus urbiniana Rose.

 

showy effect of flowering dogwood in the visual landscape

New York Botanical Gardens, The Bronx, New York
New York Botanical Gardens, The Bronx, New York

Flowering dogwood: a state symbol for two southern states

 

Flowering dogwood is the state flower for two southern states:

  • North Carolina
  • Virginia.

In 1941, North Carolina named Cornus florida as its state flower.

The Commonwealth of Virginia selected flowering dogwood as its state flower in 1918.

 

Cornus florida is the state tree for:

  • Missouri
  • Virginia.

The "Show Me" state of Missouri selected Cornus florida as its state tree in 1955.

In 1956, Virginia further honored its native tree by designating Cornus florida as its state tree.

 

 

closeup of floral cluster in center of bracts, Cornus florida 'Cherokee Chief'

'Cherokee Chief' cultivar has a potential planting range throughout most of the continental United States.
'Cherokee Chief' cultivar has a potential planting range throughout most of the continental United States.

Externals: What flowering dogwood looks like

 

Flowers appear in early spring in southern locations. Each dogwood flower has four yellow-green petals. With their small flowers, numbering about twenty, clustering together into a flower-like structure, flowering dogwood exhibits the typical inflorescence of its family, Cornaceae.

The shape of these flower heads (pseudanthia, from Greek for “false flower”) is known as umbel because the pedicels (the stalks that attach each individual flower to the main stem of the flower head), with their equal lengths branching out from a common point, are reminiscent of the ribs of an umbrella.

 

pure whiteness of flowering dogwood

closeup of bracts and flower heads
closeup of bracts and flower heads

 

Fanning out from the base of the flower head are four bracts (Latin: bractea “a thin plate of metal”), which are specialized leaflike parts. The bract’s rounded outline distinctively notches at its apex. Each bract is about two inches (five centimeters) in length.

The natural coloring for bracts is snow white, but other occasional colors in the wild are light pink or salmon.

Pink and red bracts are propagated by commercial nurseries.

 

flowering dogwood leaf, Cornus florida 'Appalachian Spring':

Part of the USA-NPN's Cloned Plants Project,'Appalachian Spring' cultivar was discovered in Catoctin Mountain Park, north central Maryland.
John J Tyler Arboretum, Media, southeastern Pennsylvania
John J Tyler Arboretum, Media, southeastern Pennsylvania

 

Flowering dogwood leaves are simple, meaning that they are not subdivided as, for example, oak leaves are. Leaves are paired on opposite sides of the stem.

Broad at the base and tapering to a point, leaves are described as ovate (Latin: ovatus “egg-shaped”) and measure 3 to 6 inches (7.6 to 15 centimeters) in length.

Their width hovers from 1.5 to 3 inches (3.8 to 7.6 centimeters).

 

autumnal coloration of flowering dogwood leaves

Highland Park, Middlesex County, northeastern New Jersey
Highland Park, Middlesex County, northeastern New Jersey

 

As a deciduous tree, flowering dogwood sheds its leaves seasonally in a process called abscission (Latin: ab “away” + scindere “to cut”). Their autumn color, signalling abscission, is in the red spectrum, from reddish brown to reddish purple.

 

flowering dogwood fruits: relished by birds and mammals

Cornus florida drupes
Cornus florida drupes

flowering dogwood seeds

Steve Hurst. Provided by ARS Systematic Botany and Mycology Laboratory. United States, MD, Salisbury
Steve Hurst. Provided by ARS Systemat...

 

With a fleshy outside and a two-celled shell enclosing two seeds inside, Cornus florida’s fruit is categorized as a drupe, with three to four clustering together. Drupes measure about 0.5 inches (13 millimeters) in length, with a diameter of 0.25 inches (6 millimeters).

In early autumn the orange to red coloring of the drupes contrast brightly with the red brown richness of flowering dogwood leaves.

 

pink flowering dogwood flowers against the tree's scaly bark

Winston-Salem, northwestern North Carolina
Winston-Salem, northwestern North Carolina

 

Cornus florida bark is black, brown, or dark gray in color. Broken up into small rectangular or square plates, its bark is reminiscent of alligator skin.

With a maximum height of 10 to 30 feet (3 to 9.15 meters), flowering dogwood is an understory, a small tree that easily grows in the shade of taller trees below the forest canopy (the topmost area of the forest habitat as delineated by the crowns of the tallest trees).

Its spreading branches make its width exceed its height.

Flowering dogwood has a maximum lifespan of about 125 years.

 

gracious branching spread of flowering dogwood tree:

Lower branch (lower right) with shoots from dormant (epicormic) buds adventitiously formed in this instance due to dieback.
Cornus florida: lower branch dieback and formation of epicormic shoots
Cornus florida: lower branch dieback and formation of epicormic shoots

Faunal popularity: Beneficial as well as ornamental

 

Flowering dogwood trees’ graceful lines and pleasing appearance ensure their popularity as ornamentals, which are plants and trees that are cultivated, i.e., grown, for their decorative value. In addition to their ornamental asset, flowering dogwoods attract a variety of wildlife with their cafeteria-style offerings of scrumptious bark, flowers, fruit, leaves, seeds, and twigs.

At least thirty-six bird species, including ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus), bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus), and wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), consume their fruit. Joining them in the fruit feast are mammals ranging from chipmunks (genus Tamias) and squirrels (family Sciuridae) to beaver (genus Castor), rabbits (family Leporidae), and skunks (family Mephitidae) and even black bears (Ursus americanus) and deer (family Cervidae).

Both rabbits and deer graze dogwood foliage and twigs.

 

Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) like to feast on flowering dogwood fruits.

Skaneateles, west central New York
Skaneateles, west central New York

Commercial usage and health-medicinal remedies

 

Prior to the invention of plastic shuttles, dogwood was harvested primarily for manufacturing textile weaving shuttles. As a hard, smooth, close-textured wood, Cornus florida’s resilience and durability are desirable in specialty products such as jewelers’ blocks, malletheads, small pulleys, and spools.

Historically a tea of dogwood bark substituted for scarce quinine in the treatment of malaria during the War Between the States (April 12, 1861 - April 9, 1865) in the southern United States. The bark’s astringency served as an effective febrifuge in treating fevers and an effective anti-diarrhetic. Also bark was applied in a softened, moist mush as a hot poultice (Latin: puls, pultes “porridge”) for sores.

Native Americans cleaned their teeth by chewing dogwood twigs, which after a few minutes split the fibers at the ends into a fine, soft brush.

 

First Lady Caroline Harrison's official White House portrait:

1894 oil on canvas by Daniel Huntington (October 4, 1816–April 19, 1906)
White House collection, Washington DC
White House collection, Washington DC

Flowering Dogwood: The artistry of its harmonious lines and colors

 

Cornus florida gently unfurls its loveliness in a profusion of white or pastel. This gracious tree casts a sweet spell on its beholders. It is the state tree of both Missouri and Virginia, and its delicate flower is North Carolina's state flower.

Indeed, the memory of its soft welcome of spring lingers, and even a first lady of the United States was enchanted by the artistry of its harmonious lines and colors. Wife of the twenty-third president, Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison (October 1, 1832 – October 25, 1892) was taught watercolor painting by James Henry Moser (January 1, 1854 - November 10, 1913). Artistically, she enjoyed floral motifs. She painted "Flowering Dogwood" during her brief tenure as first lady, from March 4, 1889 until her death from tuberculosis on October 25, 1892.

 

flowering dogwood: ca. 1890s oil on canvas by First Lady Caroline Scott Harrison (October 1, 1832 – October 25, 1892)

The White House, Washington DC
The White House, Washington DC

 

As evinced in First Lady Caroline Harrison's painting, the intrinsic loveliness of flowering dogwood is easily evoked in art. Flowering dogwood is also photogenic as the camera finds no distractions or disruptions in the simple interplay of the tree's outlines and colors.

Artistic representations honor its worthiness as a visual subject, but they can never replace the serene vista of flowering dogwoods in their element in the natural landscape as they announce spring's awakening.

 

salmon pink flowers of flowering dogwood:

Biltmore Estate, Asheville, Buncombe County, northwestern North Carolina
pink dogwood flowers Biltmore, NC
pink dogwood flowers Biltmore, NC

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.

 

flowering dogwood: early 19th century illustration by New England botanist and physician Jacob Bigelow (February 27, 1787 - January 10, 1879)

American Medical Botany, Vol. II, Plate XXVIII, pp. 72-73
American Medical Botany, Vol. II, Plate XXVIII, pp. 72-73

Sources Consulted

 

Bigelow, Jacob. American Medical Botany, Being a Collection of the Native Medicinal Plants of the United States, Containing Their Botanical History and Chemical Analysis, and Properties and Uses in Medicine, Diet and the Arts, with Coloured Engravings. Vol. II. Boston: Cummings and Hilliard, 1818.

Brand, Mark H. (Dr.) “Cornus florida Flowering Dogwood.” UConn Plant Database. University of Connecticut Department of Plant Science, Storrs CT.

Erichsen-Brown, Charlotte. Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes. New York: Dover Publications, 1989.

Gilman, Edward F., and Dennis G. Watson. "Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Chief’ / ‘Cherokee Chief’ Flowering Dogwood." Environmental Horticulture Department Fact Sheet ST-186. Gainesville: University of Florida, November 1993.

  • Available at: hort.ifas.ufl.edu/database/documents/pdf/tree_fact_sheets/corflob.pdf

McLemore, B.F. “Cornus florida L., Flowering Dogwood.” Silvics of North America. Volume 2: Hardwoods. Agriculture Handbook 654. Washington, DC: U.S.D.A. Forest Service, December 1990.

 

pastel profusion of pink flowering dogwood (Cornus florida rubra)

Decatur, north central Georgia
Decatur, north central Georgia
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Flowering Dogwood tapestry throw blanket, 50" x 60": 100% cotton

Tapestry Throw Blanket

Flowering Dogwood Tree, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, USA: photo by Adam Jones

Flowering Dogwood Tree, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, USA

Dogwood trees (Cornus florida) and Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) flowering in spring

photo by Adam Jones: Kentucky native, nature photographer specializing in Great Smoky Mountains
Dogwood Trees, Cornus Florida, and Eastern Redbud, Cercis Canadensis, Flowering in the Spring

Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 08/20/2014, DerdriuMarriner
 
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DerdriuMarriner on 07/30/2015

CruiseReady, Me too, I love the sight of blooming dogwoods. They're beautiful to be around and so easy to identify what with such distinctive bark, blooms, and branches!

CruiseReady on 07/27/2015

Dogwood trees are just gorgeous when they are in bloom. I remember driving along a dirt road,through what seemed like a forest of them years ago in East Texas. What a magnificent sight that was!

DerdriuMarriner on 04/25/2015

Mira, Cellular pigments known as anthocyanins are responsible for the rich reds of trees such as dogwoods, maples, etc. Flowering dogwood's autumnal leaf coloring is usually described as a "rich red brown." The color reminds me of a portrait of Elizabeth I in a kermes red dress.

Mira on 04/22/2015

I came back to this article and am marveling at how inventive nature is. So many trees, and yet the flowers are always different. I also love those fall leaves. What would you call that color?

DerdriuMarriner on 04/05/2014

VioletteRose, These early flowering trees put on a spectacular display. Me, too, I agree that the both white and pink dogwood flowers are beautiful. These trees are gorgeous, in person, and in photos. Your appreciation of nature is appreciated.

VioletteRose on 04/04/2014

I love your articles on all these flowering trees, they all look so pretty in full bloom. The dogwood flowers, both white and pink, are beautiful and the pictures are really wonderful! Thanks for sharing these.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/23/2014

KathleenDuffy, Me, too, I love First Lady Caroline Harrison's painting of flowering dogwood.
I also appreciate botanical illustrations, and I am impressed, as well, with Victorian women who were natural history illustrators.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/23/2014

Mira, Me, too, I appreciate the tapestry throw blanket, which is beautifully designed.
The effect of flowering dogwood, blooming in the landscape, is really special, quite spectacular, and definitely unforgettable.
It's interesting that you kept coming across references to this New World native in English-language fiction.
I'm glad to deepen your acquaintance with this lovely tree.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/23/2014

Nelda_Hoxie, Flowering dogwoods convey such beauty in the landscape that you are fortunate to live next door to this lovely tree.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/23/2014

Dustytoes, The next best thing to having a dogwood in your back yard is having one in your next door neighbor's yard!
Me, too, I enjoy the blooms of the flowering dogwood. It is a serene beauty.


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