Look out across the eastern North American woodlands in April and enjoy the flowering dogwood's (Cornus florida) white bracts contrasting with the dark bark of surrounding dormant trees. This member of the botanical family Cornaceae also occasionally receives the common names, American cornel or boxwood. Traditionally, it yielded small amounts of lumber for making jewelry boxes and small keepsake crates.
Flowering dogwood grows naturally in the woodlands across southeastern North America where acidic, moist soils dominate. Its native range extends from Massachusetts to the eastern shores of Lake Michigan in the United States and includes a small sliver above Lake Erie in Canada's Ontario. The range then extends southward to the woods of eastern Texas and then eastward to the Atlantic Ocean no farther south than central Florida.
Often growing to 20 feet tall and wide, flowering dogwood in its native woodland habitats reaches 30 to 40 feet tall and wide over many decades. Deciduous in winter, the bare branches bear green-yellow clusters of tiny flowers in spring, each cluster surrounded by four large white bracts, or modified leaves that most people call flowers. The bracts persist as the green leaves unfurl and become elegant, tapering ovals. Small, oval, red berries may develop on trees and look ornamental alongside the foliage in autumn, turning tones of pink, burgundy, purple, red and orange-red.
Plant flowering dogwood in deep, fertile soils with an acidic pH (5.0 to 6.5). The soil must remain consistently and evenly moist year-round, and flooding or soggy conditions need to be avoided. In cool summer regions, this tree handles six to 10 hours of direct sunlight daily in the growing season. However, being an understory forest tree, this dogwood prospers in partial shade, where shifting sunlight dapples onto the foliage at varying levels across the day. This tree must also receive ample chilly temperatures over the winter dormancy for prolonged health, vigor and flowering. Thus, grow flowering dogwood in USDA zones 5 through the cooler parts of zone 9.
In the forest ecosystems of eastern North America, the fruit, seeds, leaves, twigs and bark all provide nourishment to an array of animal wildlife. Plant tissues yield a high amount of the nutrient calcium and provide a source of fat and protein to foragers. More than 30 species of songbirds and game fowl consume the fruits and seeds, while mammals including deer, bear, rabbits, fox and beaver eat fruits and gnaw on twigs and bark.
On occasion, pink-tinted bracts surround the true dogwood flowers, catching the visual attention of gardeners. Many varying ornamental qualities of the flowering dogwood tree led horticulturists to select them as varieties for use in woodland and more formal garden designs. A few white-bracted varieties include 'Pluribracteata', 'First Lady', 'White Cloud' and 'Cherokee Princess'. Pink bracts consistently form on 'Rubra' and 'Spring Song'. Deeper rose to reddish bracts grow on 'Cherokee Chief' and 'Purple Glory'. An additional ornamental quality possessed by some varieties is variegated foliage.