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How to Identify a Dogwood Tree

By Cheyenne Cartwright ; Updated September 21, 2017

A beloved harbinger of spring, the dogwood tree (scientific name Cornaceae) puts out huge drifts of white, pink or red bracts very early in the year, before it begins to leaf out. The tree is native to the eastern United States, but many species can adapt to other parts of the country as well.

Look to see whether the tree is a conifer or a deciduous broadleaf. The latter has thin, flat leaves, as opposed to needles or tight, scaly leaves. The dogwood is a deciduous broadleaf tree, which means that it loses its leaves during the winter.

Examine the stems that the leaves are attached to. On a dogwood, each individual leaf grows directly out of the stem. This is called a simple leaf.

Check to see whether the leaves grow exactly opposite one another on each side of the stem, or whether there are spaces between them, so that they appear to alternate in position. Dogwood trees grow opposite one another.

Analyze the shape of a single leaf. Dogwood leaves are oval and smooth on the surface, with even edges that don’t have any indentations. They don’t have lobes, nor are they shaped like fans.

Look at the veins in a leaf. A dogwood leaf has a central vein, and the veins that branch off it follow the shape of the leaf, curving out from the central vein to the edge of the leaf.

If it’s early spring, examine the bracts on the tree. Bracts are modified leaves that surround the true flowers, which on a dogwood are small, yellowish-green, and in the center of the bigger, more showy bracts. Most dogwood bracts, which can be white, pink or deep red, spread out in sets of four around the flowers. At the tip of each bract, there’s a notch.

If it’s late in the summer or early fall, look for fruits on the tree. Dogwood fruits grow in tight clusters; they look like small, hard berries. The fruits turn bright red in the early fall.

If it’s fall, check the color of the leaves. Dogwood leaves turn red when the weather gets cooler.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)