Dogwood Trees: Appearance, Care Needs, Varieties & Problems

The delightful Cornus tree, commonly known as the dogwood tree, provides happiness throughout the entire year, starting from spring and extending to winter.

Classed as a small to mid-sized tree, you don’t need acres of space to enjoy one either! But how straightforward are these gorgeous ornamental trees when it comes to care and maintenance?

Dogwood trees are fairly easy to grow as they have slow to moderate growth and tolerate some drought and varying soil types as long as they are fertile and drain well. Dogwoods thrive in a wide range of Grow Zones but should be protected from heat and extreme drought stress with heavy mulching.

If you want to be rewarded with stunning blooms year after year and aesthetic appeal that lasts into fall and winter, learn the basics of dogwood tree care, and be consistent.

From the ideal growing conditions to potential disease and pest issues to be wary of, we’ll take you through what a dogwood tree needs to be happy and discuss popular varieties, where to buy them, and more.

Dogwood Trees Overview

These relatively small trees pack a lot of beauty into the landscape with their showy blooms and distinctive bark.

Let’s look at the typical characteristics of dogwood trees from their foliage and flowers to their growing habits and hardiness.

Tree Appearance & Size

Dogwoods range from small to medium-sized multi-stemmed trees with rounded or tiered canopies.

Trees have smooth gray bark in their youth before developing an attractive mottled or peeling bark pattern of gray and cinnamon-red as they mature.

In their natural habitat, dogwood trees can grow up to 50 feet tall, but generally, most garden specimens will grow up to 15 to 30 feet tall and wide, depending on the variety.

Dogwood Flowers

From April to June, dogwood trees bloom with clusters of four-petaled flowers with yellow-green centers and can vary in color from pristine white and delicate cream, yellow, or pink hues to deeper pinks and reds.

April to June is the typical blooming period for most flowering dogwoods, but some hybrid varieties can bloom from February through August.

Beautiful pink flowers of a mature dogwood tree up close.

Dogwood Leaves

Dogwood foliage is smooth with an oval or pointed elliptical shape and prominent veins that curve slightly toward the leaf margins.

Leaves are typically lush green, but some varieties feature cream and pale yellow markings.

The leaves grow in pairs on the branches and transform into the most stunning fall shades.

Dogwood Berries

Dogwood tree berries or “drupes” grow in clusters of about 4 to 6 and appear in late summer to early fall with a bright-red coloring.

They can have a rounded cherry-like shape with a bumpy texture (similar to lychee fruit) or appear slightly elongated and smooth like grapes.

According to the Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources, these luscious berries can draw around 60 different bird species to your garden including robins, blue-jays and red-bellied woodpeckers.

Most dogwood species bear fruit that’s edible for humans too, so you can make jams, jellies, and other great recipes with the berries!

Growth Habit & Rate

Dogwoods have an elegant, sweeping branching habit, resulting in a rounded or flat-topped canopy, and trees tend to grow at a slow to moderate rate depending on the variety, attaining about 20 feet over 25 years.

Dogwood Trees in Fall & Winter

Alongside the blossoms and berries, the changing bark and foliage color of dogwood trees provides year-round appeal.

Around fall, the vibrant green leaves turn various shades of red, purple, and orange with some variegated cultivars, such as ‘Wolf Eyes’ and ‘Rainbow’, displaying pink and cream-yellow edged leaves.

Once the leaves drop, the bark continues to add interest with peeling patchwork bark of gray and tan to cinnamon.

Some smaller shrub dogwood trees, like the Red-Twig and Yellow-Twig varieties, display vibrant scarlet or golden stems throughout winter.

Dogwood Grow Zones

Dogwood trees grow best in USDA Grow Zones 2 through 9a depending on the specific variety (and there are over 130 cultivars!), so always be sure to check that you have the right climate for the type of tree you’re considering.

The upper branches of a white dogwood tree in full bloom.

Dogwood Tree Care and Maintenance

Now that you know what to expect from these stunning trees, be sure to help them flourish throughout the seasons by adhering to proper care and maintenance.

From ideal soil to pruning and fertilization, good care will help your dogwood prosper.

Growing Conditions

Dogwood trees appreciate a planting spot in partial shade (dappled sunlight throughout the day or afternoon shade is ideal).

Be sure to avoid locations with intense afternoon sun to prevent stress and sun scorch.

As for their care from the roots down, dogwoods prefer fertile, nutrient-rich soil that drains well. Loose sandy and loamy soils amended with organic matter like peat and compost are ideal.

Although they aren’t too fussy about soil pH, neutral to slightly acidic soil (5.5-7.0) is best.

Watering Needs

The soil should be kept moist, but your dogwood will be quite tolerant of a few dry spells once established.

A thorough soak once a week is fine, increasing this to twice weekly during especially hot and dry periods.

Dry or pale green leaves are a sign to up the watering, but gray or wilting foliage are signals to cut back a little.

Fertilization

Dogwood trees aren’t heavy feeders, and if the soil is already nutrient-rich with organic matter, then fertilizer won’t be necessary.

If you have poor soil conditions and your tree is visibly struggling, provide a small amount of balanced slow-release fertilizer (this one for acid-loving trees and shrubs is excellent) once in early spring.

Pruning

Dogwood trees rarely require pruning other than to occasionally thin out and declutter the canopy to maintain overall health.

Around late winter or early spring when the tree is dormant, identify any broken or diseased branches, and remove them with clean heavy-duty pruning loppers.

Keep an eye out for crossing/rubbing branches or any growth that creates an untidy appearance, and prune these back to improve airflow and reduce the spread of disease.

Mulching

Adding a generous layer of mulch ( 2-3 inches of bark chips or compost) around the base of the trunk helps the soil retain moisture, which is hugely beneficial both in extreme summer and harsh winter conditions and helps reduce watering chores.

When applying the mulch, take care not to let the mulch touch the trunk base itself as this can risk the spread of disease.

Several large, white dogwood flowers up close.

Dogwood Diseases and Pests

In poor growing conditions, even hardy dogwood trees can be susceptible to disease and pest infestations.

Poor circulation and heat or drought stress can contribute to issues like powdery mildew and Botryosphaeria canker).

The former can be identified by reddish-brown spots and white patches on the leaves’ upper surface, and canker manifests as stem or branch dieback caused by sunken, dark lesions that enlarge and eventually girdle stems.

Powdery mildew can be treated using fungicides like myclobutanil while canker-infected branches and stems can be pruned out.

In severe cases, it can be beneficial to cut the plant all the way down to the ground to allow it to resprout.

As for pests, struggling dogwoods are commonly targeted by dogwood borers and dogwood sawflies.

The sawfly’s yellow-and-black caterpillar-like larvae munch on large areas of leaf tissue while borer larvae enter through bark openings and other tree wounds, leaving behind sawdust-like frass.

Pesticide sprays and horticultural oil can deal with large infestations. Otherwise, sawfly larvae can be dislodged manually by hand-picking them or shaking them off the tree.

Propagating Dogwood Trees

Your dogwood tree can be propagated via seed and by taking stem cuttings. The latter is the most popular method and is best done in spring after the blooming cycle.

Flexible 3-5 inch-long stems are taken with the bottom leaves stripped off.

Cuttings are then dipped in rooting hormone to encourage development before the cutting is placed in moistened sand/perlite potting mix inside a sealed plastic bag to mimic greenhouse conditions.

After about 6 weeks, roots should begin to form, meaning your dogwood cutting is ready for a bigger pot and eventually, the great outdoors!

Dogwood Varieties

From shrub specimens with vibrant winter stems to giant trees with eye-catching blossoms and leaf patterns, there are many spectacular dogwood varieties out there to suit your landscape.

Here are some of the most popular picks:

  • Pink Flowering: Produces pink and white-tinged blooms in late spring and grows 20 feet tall with a 25 foot spread. Zones 5-8.
  • Cherokee Brave: Blooms with vivid pink flowers with white centers and displays maroon fall foliage. These are very cold hardy to the worst extreme of Zones 5-9.
  • White Flowering: Blooms with creamy-white flowers from May followed by rich scarlet foliage in fall. Reaches 15 feet tall and 20-25 feet wide.
  • Ivory Halo: A variegated cultivar with green and cream-edged leaves and white star-shaped flowers. Dark-red stems and purple-to-bronze foliage add four-season interest.
  • Pagoda: Produces small starry white flowers and clusters of blackish-blue berries. Matures to a height and spread of 20 feet and bears reddish-purple fall foliage.
  • Kousa: These vary from weeping to upright vase habits and bear striking pointed star-like blooms in pastel to richly saturated shades of cream and pink.
  • Red Twig: Small upright shrub variety that tolerates wet soil conditions and grows to 3 feet tall and wide. Deep-green leaves and white starry blooms are followed by white berries and fiery-red winter stems.
  • Yellow Twig: Shrub cultivar of the Red Twig variety with lemon to gold-yellow winter stems and dark-green foliage that deepens to red and purple. These grow roughly 6-8 feet tall and wide.
  • Red Osier: Large shrub (7-9 feet tall) with dark-red stems, yellowish-white flowers, and white and blue-tinged berries. Fall foliage colors are burgundy-purple, and it’s hardy between Zones 2 and 7.
  • Silky Dogwood: Beloved by songbirds, the Silky dogwood bears clusters of white elongated star-shaped flowers and lush-green foliage followed by ink-blue berries. This grows 6-8 feet tall and wide.

Dogwood Companion Plants

There are various shade-loving shrubs, ground-cover, and flowering plants that pair excellently with dogwood trees thanks to their similar blooming schedules, water requirements, and soil needs.

Here’s our pick of the best:

  • Mondo grass
  • Periwinkle
  • Creeping sedum
  • Helleborus
  • Hosta
  • Daylilies
  • Hydrangeas
  • Astilbe
  • Cranesbill
  • Primrose
  • Heath
  • Bleeding heart
  • Azalea
  • Bugleweed
  • Coral bells
  • Bearded iris
  • Brunnera
  • Gardenia

Best Places To Buy Dogwood Trees

Dogwood tree saplings may be available at your local garden center, but online tree nurseries are recommended for greater variety and quality.

They also come in different sizes to suit your landscape needs. You’ll find everything from small bare-root specimens to larger container trees.

Check out the following nurseries to find your next dogwood tree!

Closing Thoughts

Dogwood trees lend a classic beauty to your garden or yard with their graceful spread, show-stopping flowers, and berries (attracting plenty of bird species to your home!).

Many varieties have year-round appeal due to stunning fall foliage in hues of bronze, burgundy, red, and purple, not to mention vibrant winter stems and exfoliating bark.

Partially shady conditions and moist, fertile soil are key to making these trees happy.

Keeping the canopy well-ventilated and free of crowding and diseased branches will also help to maintain good health and deter trouble from pests and disease.