Dogwood vs. Cottonwood – Differences in Appearance & Care

Picture yourself in a nursery surrounded by various types of trees, each with its own unique charm. Your focus is drawn to two particular trees: the dogwood and the cottonwood.

Both are stunning in their own right, but how do you choose between them?

Understanding the differences between these two species can help you make an informed decision that suits your specific needs and preferences.

Dogwood and cottonwood are two distinct species of trees with different characteristics and care requirements. Dogwoods are 10-20 feet tall with a slow growth rate and showy spring flowers. Cottonwoods are 50-80 feet tall with a fast growth rate and cottony seeds.

In the following sections, we’ll compare dogwood and cottonwood in detail, exploring their growth habits, average sizes, key features, and visual appeal.

This side-by-side comparison will provide a clear understanding of each tree’s unique characteristics, helping you determine which tree is the right fit for your landscape.

Key Takeaways

  • Dogwoods are small to medium-sized trees with showy spring flowers and stunning fall color, suitable for small gardens and landscapes. They prefer well-drained soil and can grow in full sun to part shade.
  • Cottonwoods are large, fast-growing trees that can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. They are best suited for large landscapes and provide quick shade. Their fall foliage turns a bright yellow.
  • Dogwoods require moderate watering and benefit from a balanced fertilizer, while cottonwoods have high water requirements and benefit from a high-nitrogen fertilizer.

Although many people don’t know it, there are many different types of dogwood trees, each with slightly different features and blooms. Explore the most popular in my article, Best Dogwood Varieties.

Dogwood vs. Cottonwood at a Glance

Botanical NameCornus spp.Populus deltoides
Grow Zones5-92-9
Growth RateSlow to moderateFast
Average Size10-20 feet tall50-80 feet tall
Light RequirementsFull sun to part shadeFull sun
Watering NeedsModerateHigh
FloweringYes, in springYes, but not showy
LeavesOpposite, simple leavesAlternate, triangular leaves
Key FeaturesShowy spring flowers, attractive fall foliageFast growth, tolerance to wet conditions

Dogwood vs. Cottonwood – Features

Dogwood and cottonwood trees, while both beautiful, offer different features that can enhance your landscape in unique ways.

In the following sections, we’ll explore the specific features of each tree, including their size and shape, leaves, flowers, ornamental appeal, bark, growth rate and habits, and fall foliage.

Size and Shape

Dogwood trees are generally small to medium-sized trees, typically growing to a height of 10-20 feet. They have a rounded, spreading shape with a short trunk and horizontal or slightly drooping branches.

This compact size and attractive shape make dogwoods an excellent choice for small gardens or borders or as a specimen tree in a lawn.

Cottonwood trees are much larger, often reaching heights of 50-80 feet or more. They have a broad, open crown with spreading branches, giving the tree a rounded to pyramidal shape.

Due to their large size, cottonwoods are best suited for large landscapes where they have plenty of room to grow.


Dogwood trees have opposite, simple leaves with an ovate to elliptic shape. The leaves are typically 3-6 inches long, with smooth or slightly wavy margins.

In the fall, the leaves turn a stunning array of red, purple, and orange, adding a burst of color to the landscape.

Cottonwood trees have alternate, simple leaves with a distinctive triangular shape. The leaves are 3-6 inches long, with coarse, toothed margins.

In the fall, the leaves turn a bright yellow, providing a striking contrast to the tree’s rough, gray bark.

Flowers and Ornamental Appeal

Dogwood trees are known for their showy spring flowers. In reality, what appears to be the flower is actually a set of four showy bracts that surround a cluster of small, inconspicuous flowers.

These bracts can be white, pink, or red, depending on the species, and they create a stunning display that can last for several weeks in the spring.

In addition to their spring flowers, dogwoods also produce clusters of red or white berries in the fall, adding to their ornamental appeal.

A close look at pink dogwood flowers.

Cottonwood trees are not known for their flowers. They produce small, inconspicuous flowers in the spring that are followed by cottony seeds that give the tree its common name.

While these cottony seeds can create a unique visual effect, they can also be a nuisance in the landscape as they can create a mess when they fall.

Seeds of cottonwood tree covered with downy fluff.


Dogwood tree bark is one of its distinguishing features. It is typically gray and smooth in young trees, becoming rough and blocky as the tree matures.

The bark has been described as resembling alligator skin, adding interest to the winter landscape when the leaves have fallen.

Cottonwood trees have thick, rough bark that is gray to brown in color. The bark becomes deeply furrowed as the tree matures, giving it a rugged, textured appearance.

The bark is one of the key identifying features of cottonwood trees.

Growth Rate and Habits

Dogwood trees have a slow to moderate growth rate, typically adding 1-2 feet of growth per year. They prefer well-drained soils and can tolerate a range of soil types, from sandy to clay.

Dogwoods can grow in full sun to part shade, but they prefer some shade in hotter climates to protect them from scorching.

Cottonwood trees are fast growers, often adding 3 feet or more of growth per year. They are highly adaptable and can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, including wet, poorly drained soils.

Cottonwoods prefer full sun and need plenty of space to accommodate their large size and extensive root system.

Fall Foliage

Dogwood trees are known for their stunning fall foliage. The leaves turn a brilliant array of red, purple, and orange, creating a spectacular autumn display.

This fall color, combined with their attractive shape and spring flowers, makes dogwoods a standout tree for all seasons.

Cottonwood trees also provide fall interest with their bright yellow foliage.

While not as varied in color as dogwood, the golden yellow leaves of the cottonwood tree create a striking contrast against the autumn landscape, particularly when backlit by the sun.

Dogwood vs. Cottonwood – Growing Requirements

In order to perform at their best and remain strong and healthy, trees need specific environmental conditions.

Light Preferences

Dogwoods are flexible when it comes to light requirements. They can grow in full sun to part shade, but they prefer some shade in hotter climates to protect them from scorching.

Cottonwoods, on the other hand, are sun-lovers and thrive in locations that receive full sun exposure.

Soil Type and pH Requirements

Dogwoods are versatile trees that can adapt to a variety of soil conditions, from sandy to clay soils. However, they prefer well-drained soil and a location with full sun to partial shade.

Cottonwoods are highly adaptable trees that can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, including wet, poorly drained soils.

Cold Hardiness and Adaptability

Dogwoods are hardy, adaptable trees that can tolerate cold temperatures, making them suitable for growing in USDA Zones 5-9.

Cottonwoods are also hardy and adaptable and can withstand cold temperatures. They are suitable for growing in USDA Zones 2-9.

Dogwood vs. Cottonwood – Maintenance & Care

In many ways, trees are largely self-sufficient once established, but if want healthy trees that resist pests and diseases and look great throughout the seasons, some basic care is required.

Watering Needs

Dogwoods have moderate watering needs, but it’s important to provide additional water during dry spells.

Cottonwoods have high water requirements, particularly during dry periods.


Dogwoods benefit from a balanced fertilizer applied in the spring. This helps promote healthy growth and flowering.

Cottonwoods are fast-growing trees and benefit from a high-nitrogen fertilizer to support their rapid growth.


Dogwoods don’t require heavy or intensive pruning, but regular light pruning helps maintain the attractive shape of dogwood trees and promotes good health by removing any dead or diseased wood.

Cottonwoods are relatively low in terms of maintenance, but they do have a tendency to drop branches, so regular pruning may be necessary.

Pests and Diseases

Dogwoods, while beautiful, can be susceptible to a number of diseases and pests. Dogwood anthracnose, a fungal disease, can cause leaf spots, twig dieback, and in severe cases, tree death.

Dogwood borers are pests that can cause significant damage to the trunk and branches.

Cottonwoods are also susceptible to a number of diseases and pests. Leaf spot diseases, cankers, and cottonwood borers can all pose challenges.

Cottonwoods are also known for their susceptibility to limb breakage, which can be a problem in areas with high winds or heavy snowfall.

Fall Cleanup

Dogwood cleanup is generally minimal and typically only involves raking and removing fallen leaves to prevent the spread of diseases and pests.

Cottonwood fall cleanup may involve not only raking and removing fallen leaves but also picking up fallen branches.

Dogwood vs. Cottonwood – Landscape Uses

Dogwoods, with their smaller size and attractive shape, are excellent choices for small gardens or borders or as specimen trees in a lawn. Their showy spring flowers and stunning fall color add year-round interest.

Cottonwoods, with their large size and fast growth rate, are suitable for large landscapes where they can provide quick shade. Their bright-yellow fall foliage adds a striking contrast to the autumn landscape.

Dogwood vs. Cottonwood – Life Span

Dogwood trees have a moderate life span, typically living for 30 to 80 years with proper care. Their life span can be shortened by factors such as disease, pests, and poor growing conditions.

Cottonwood trees have a relatively short life span for a tree, typically living for 40 to 50 years. Their life span can be shortened by factors such as disease, pests, and limb breakage.

Popular Varieties

There are several popular varieties for both dogwood and cottonwood trees.

For dogwoods, some popular varieties include the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa), and the Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii).

Each of these varieties offers unique features, from different flower colors to varying leaf shapes.

For cottonwoods, popular varieties include the eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii), and narrowleaf cottonwood (Populus angustifolia).

These varieties differ in their size, leaf shape, and growth habits.

Related Questions:

What Is Another Name for a Cottonwood Tree?

Cottonwood trees are also commonly known as poplars, particularly in the United Kingdom. The name “cottonwood” comes from the cotton-like fluff that surrounds their seeds, which are released in the spring.

What Tree Is Similar to Dogwood?

There are several trees that are similar to dogwood in terms of their size and ornamental features.

Some of these include the redbud (Cercis canadensis), serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), and hawthorn (Crataegus spp.).

Like dogwoods, these trees are small to medium in size and offer showy spring flowers and attractive fall colors.

Which Tree Is Right for You?

Choosing between a dogwood and a cottonwood tree depends largely on your specific needs and preferences.

If you’re looking for a small to medium-sized tree with showy spring flowers, stunning fall color, and year-round interest, a dogwood tree could be the perfect choice.

On the other hand, if you have a large landscape and are looking for a fast-growing tree that can provide shade and tolerate wet conditions, a cottonwood tree might be the better option.

Still on the fence about what tree is right for you? Explore more options before making a final decision: