Common Dogwood Problems: What To Do When Things Go Wrong

Even though dogwoods are resilient, these delightful flowering trees still face some challenges.

Your specific climate and garden conditions play a big part in how well your dogwood tree will prosper, so to ensure it will not only survive but thrive, let’s look at 14 common problems and how to fix them!

Discover gorgeous varieties, learn pro care tips, become familiar with pest and disease issues, explore propagation methods, and more in my detailed Dogwood Tree Guide.

1. Slow Growth or No Growth

Dogwood trees are naturally slow-growing, achieving less than 1 foot per year. However, if yours is noticeably struggling, inhibited growth could be caused by things like too little or too much sunlight.

An additional stressor can be competition for nutrients and moisture. Dogwoods have shallow roots, so check the soil bed around the base.

If any grass, flowering plants, or weeds are growing on the soil surface close to the trunk, remove them to clear a 1-2 foot diameter area around the base.

Add some mulch in the cleared area. This will slow water evaporation and help suppress future weeds too.

Have your soil tested to determine if there is an imbalance of nutrients that should be corrected.

2. Branch or Twig Dieback

Damp conditions in spring and fall combined with poor airflow and pest stress can cause leaf deterioration, which then spreads its way to small end twigs.

As twigs die back, this can lead to cankers (black, sunken areas) developing on the branches.

To tackle this, wait until the infected branches/twigs are dry before pruning them, and clean up any leaves and debris around the tree that could be harboring disease or pests.

Consider having an arborist inspect your tree for signs of disease.

3. Yellowing Leaves

Yellowing leaves on dogwood trees are a likely sign of chlorosis. This occurs when the tree cannot take in sufficient amounts of iron to turn into chlorophyll — the stuff keeping the leaves lush and green!

Things like overwatering can choke the roots and inhibit iron intake as can overly alkaline soil.

Be sure to check your soil’s pH levels. They should ideally be between 5.0 and 7.0 (slightly acidic to neutral).

If the pH goes beyond 7.5, the soil is too alkaline, and the tree will struggle to absorb iron.

4. Browning Leaves

During extreme summer heat and extended drought spells, leaf scorch can occur on your dogwood, causing the leaf edges to turn coppery-brown.

When this happens, provide the tree with a deep soaking of water, and provide plenty of afternoon shade with a well-placed protective shade cloth, like this one.

Trim the browned edges using sharp, clean kitchen shears, or remove badly affected leaves altogether to prevent disease from setting in.

Brown leaves can also be the result of disease, so thoroughly inspect the tree for other symptoms, and consider consulting an expert.

Crispy, dead leaves on a young dogwood tree.

5. Curling Leaves

Dogwood leaves can begin to curl up as a result of scorching under direct sunlight or due to the progression of the fungal disease powdery mildew.

If the leaves are browning and curled, provide afternoon shade and additional watering.

If the upper surface of the curled leaves has white mold patches, this signals powdery mildew.

Ensure the canopy is free of dead, diseased, or broken twigs/branches, and prune infected leaves. If the disease is widespread, treat the area with copper-based fungicide (find it here).

6. Pale Leaves

Pale green or yellowish-green leaves can be a sign that your dogwood is receiving too little sunlight or having to compete for nutrients.

Make sure the tree is planted in a spot that receives dappled sunlight throughout the day or partial sun (such as a spot with morning sun and afternoon shade).

Also, look out for any weeds or other plants growing close to the tree’s base, and remove them as necessary.

Apply a light application of balanced, slow-release fertilizer each spring to ensure the tree is receiving enough nutrients.

7. Holes in Leaves

If you find large pieces missing from the leaves, the larvae of the greedy dogwood sawfly are the likely culprit — they feed in groups and will completely skeletonize entire eaves if they get the chance!

In spring, check the underside of leaves as this is the side they feed on, and be on the lookout for white, fuzzy caterpillar-like larvae.

Hand-pick small numbers and drop them in a bucket of soapy water, or for bigger infestations, treat the underside of leaves with horticultural oil or insecticidal soap.

8. Poor Flowering

Failure to bloom can result from generally poor conditions, such as incorrect soil, inadequate sunlight, low nutrient levels, and insufficient water.

However, it’s important to bear in mind that certain dogwood varieties can take a long time to flower, depending on how they were grown before purchase.

If your dogwood tree was grown from seed, for example, it may take a good 7 to 10 years before flowering occurs!

If early flowering is important to you, grafted cultivars of dogwood trees may be a better purchase for you.

9. Early Fall Color

Gorgeous red, purple, and bronze shades are seen on dogwood trees in the fall, but if you’re seeing this change happen in summer, it’s not necessarily a cause to celebrate.

Healthy fall foliage should have a rich tone and almost glossy texture, but premature fall color is often combined with a wilted, dry, and lackluster appearance.

Leaves appear a dull reddish-brown, and in rare cases, the bark may be cracked at the base of the tree which can indicate crown canker.

Premature fall color is often caused by drought stress or complications from powdery mildew, so reassess care conditions as needed, and prune back the affected sections.

10. Early Leaf Drop

An early sign that premature leaf drop may occur is discoloration on the upper surface of the leaf. Leaves may also turn red as they would in the fall.

Early (summer) leaf drop can usually be traced back to damage by scale insects and dogwood borers.

These pests feed respectively on the stems, leaves, and inner bark, which soon sap the leaves of energy.

To combat this, it’s important to check stems, branches, and leaf undersides routinely for evidence of scale insects (and their sticky honeydew-like residue) and borers.

Borers love to enter wounds and gashes in the bark that may be caused by deer damage (more on this below), or accidental cuts from lawnmowers/trimmers.

11. Fungal Infections

Wet summers and poor air circulation around dogwood trees can leave them vulnerable to fungal diseases like leaf spot and powdery mildew.

Leaf spot is caused by two different types of fungi and can leave either tan-brown spots or dark-purple to black spots that lighten to gray.

Prune out infected growth to clear room in the canopy, and apply a preventative fungicide at the start of each growing season (preferably at bud break).

12. Bacterial Infections

Physical damage to the bark and stems caused by pests or rough weather can provide an entry point for bacterial infections like crown canker.

The pathogen behind crown canker (Phytophthora cactorum) overwinters in debris and spreads via the wind and water splashes.

For this reason, it’s really important to regularly rake and remove debris at the base of your dogwood. It also helps to clear the understory by removing crowding ground cover plants.

As for managing the canker itself, you can remove layers of the discolored, diseased bark with a sharp knife if the wound is confined to a relatively small section.

13. Pest Infestations

Dogwoods aren’t especially vulnerable to pests, but when environmental conditions such as damp weather or poor air flow have trees stressed, insects such as dogwood borers and scale insects can become a common nuisance.

Dogwood borer larvae feed inside the bark, causing leaf drop and branch dieback.

Prune infected growth when the borers are inactive and insert a thin wire into their feeding tunnel to crush them.

Scale insects feed on the leaf sap and leave a sticky honeydew-like trail in their wake.

These tan-brown oval-shaped pests sometimes can be dislodged with strong sprays of water, and spring applications of neem oil can kill adults and eggs.

14. Deer Damage

New trees in the landscape can tempt nearby deer to browse and rub the bark with their antlers, engaging in a behavior known as “buck rub.”

Deer don’t leave tooth marks in the bark as they lack upper incisors, so you’ll know it’s deer-related if the bark has a stripped, girdled appearance. Branches, twigs, and leaves may also appear shredded and torn.

If the damage is restricted to only one side of the tree, there’s a chance the bark can heal.

Otherwise, more widespread girdling can strip away the tree’s cambium layer (the layer used to transport water and nutrients to the tree), so preventative measures with a fence or tree guard are best.

Closing Thoughts 

Dogwood trees are hardy, but the right combo of unfavorable weather conditions and poor care can attract a whole host of trouble from pests and diseases.

For the best chance of success, choose dogwood varieties with high resistance to disease, pests, and deer, not to mention high tolerance to drought and heat stress.

These include ‘Appalachian Joy’, ‘Kousa’, and ‘Satomi’. In the meantime, make sure you are providing your dogwood tree with everything it needs in terms of sunlight, water, nutrients, and air circulation.

Still have questions about your dogwood tree? Learn about watering issues and lichen growth next: