By Melinda Heigel, EMGV
If you are from North Carolina, you are quite familiar with the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), our official state “flower.”1 Flowering dogwood has a broad range and is native to southeastern Canada, eastern North America and eastern Mexico. The pink- to-white color show that lights up the landscape usually beginning in March is a sure sign that spring is finally in the air. But there are other members of the dogwood family (the Cornaceae family) that are worth knowing too. Among others, the cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) offers spectacular color in compact a slow-growing shrub to small tree, and its bloom time can add some much-needed interest early in the year when many flowering trees and shrubs are still dormant.
Many gardeners struggle with four-season interest in their landscape. After warm-season blooms fade, the garden can seem quite bare until springtime. With the deciduous Cornus mas, the small-but-stunning golden 3/4″ round clusters (umbels)2 appear upon bare branches in late winter to early spring, which lends an architectural quality as well as shot of color to an often drab vista. Depending on conditions, gardeners can generally count on about a month-long bloom time. But wait–the cornelian cherry dogwood has more to offer throughout the year as well. Like our native dogwood, this specimen produces red cherry-like drupes in the mid summer to late fall that are attractive to both the gardener’s eye and wildlife alike. Some newer cultivars produce white, yellow, or purple drupes, so do your research first if you want bright red fruits. The plant’s glossy 4″ leaves are not known for producing outstanding fall color but typically turn a mix of yellow, dark green, and dark purple. But in the late fall and early winter, the plant’s exfoliating rough bark offers excellent texture. Note that the intriguing shaggy bark appears once the plant has matured. If a plant can offer near-year-round interest, the cornelian cherry dogwood should be on the list.
Description and Growing Conditions
The cornelian cherry dogwood is best used as a hedge, foundation plant, in a shrub border, or even trained into small tree where it can function as a garden accent. Tree form of this deciduous plant is the best way to highlight its bark. When mature, this dogwood can read 15-20 ‘ in height and width and exhibits a rounded, dense and upright branching habit. It is a slow to moderate grower, but gardeners should remove suckers to control growth and habit.
The plant performs best in full sun to part shade and is happiest in well-drained rich soil. It can tolerate a wide soil pH range from 5.0 – 8.0. The cornelian cherry dogwood has a reputation for being easy plant to grow with low maintenance. This native of western Asia and southern Europe is winter resilient and hardy in zones 4-8. While it can be susceptible to pests and pathogens when under stress like all plants, this specimen has very few insect or disease problems; it shows resistance to dogwood anthracnose, powdery mildew, and dogwood borers, the later of which can be a problem for our native flowering dogwood.
There are several cultivars of cornelian cherry dogwoods. ‘Spring Glow’ and ‘Spring Sun’ (also known as ‘Spring Grove’) are two cultivars that exhibit characteristics mentioned above. Horticultural experts often suggest ‘Spring Glow’ specifically as a good selection for the South. Cornelian cherry dogwood can be planted in succession with other native and non-native dogwoods in the landscape to extend bloom time.3
1–With our native Cornus florida, the term flowering dogwood “flower” is a bit of a misnomer. What people typically think of as flowers are actually modified leaves known as bracts which are colorful and grow at the base of small flowers. Flowering dogwoods and poinsettias are good examples of plants with colorful bracts.
(Image credit: IFAS Extension, University of Florida)
2–Umbels are flowers that form a flattened dome-shape and grow from a common point on a stem. In addition to the cornelian cherry dogwood, examples of umbels are Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) and Chinese paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha).
3–Chinese cornelian dogwood (Cornus officinalis) is nearly indistinguishable from the cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus Mas) and blooms slightly earlier in the season. Pairing these two dogwoods in your landscape will only help extend the blooming season. See North Carolina State University’s Plant Toolbox site for more information at https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/cornus-officinalis/.
Resources and Additional Information
North Carolina State University offers an excellent in-depth look at the cornelian cherry dogwood on their Plant Toolbox site including an extensive list of cultivars and varieties and their characteristics. This site also features a video highlighting the plant created by Andy Pulte for “Landscape Plant Identification, Taxonomy and Morphology” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Tennessee.
Want more information on a wide array of ornamental dogwoods, including cornelian cherry dogwood? See Clemson University’s factsheet below.