Dogwood | myMotherLode.com
Photo by Kathi Joye Dogwood foliage Riparian habitat, shrub, foliage.
A true Californian beauty is the Pacific or mountain dogwood (Cornus nuttallii). The dogwood show begins in spring with exotic-looking blooms, continues into late summer with the development of surprising clustered fruits, and then ends in fall with a finale of branches filled with crimson leaves. Some of the best places to view dogwoods are here in Tuolumne County along creeks and ditch trails, and on the shadier sides of mountains below 5000 feet.
Dogwoods thrive in recesses in the Sierra Nevada as they prefer hot summers and cold winters and grow well in moderate rainfall and snowmelt. They need partial shade to protect their thin bark from the sun. Dogwoods often grow under the canopy of larger trees in our mixed coniferous forests or surrounded by an undergrowth of native shrubs.
The showy flowers bloom sometime between April and June, depending on elevation and conditions. The white, showy, petal-like structures are actually modified leaves called bracts. The bracts surround a greenish-white center containing 30-40 small true flowers. The flowers eventually develop into a type of fruit called drupe by late summer. Each drupe is bright red to reddish-orange in color. The flowers shine against the deep green background of the leaves when the tree puts out new leaves in spring. In autumn, the leaves steal the show with color changes from yellowish pink to crimson.
The Pacific dogwood is beneficial for attracting pollinating insects, including caterpillars. Its drupes also attract a variety of songbirds. A native Californian, it is drought tolerant and fairly resilient to fire.
If you’re thinking of giving this native beauty a home in your garden, realize that new dogwood plants will need extra care for a few years, but it’s well worth the extra effort. They require well-drained, preferably acidic soil rich in inorganic matter. Young trees should be planted between shrubs or under taller trees so that the vulnerable trunk is at least partially shaded. Protect young trees from deer grazing the tender branches. Mature trees are not a food source due to their foul-tasting tannins.
Once dogwoods are established, they don’t need any additional summer water or fertilizer. They don’t like being circumcised either; the open wounds heal slowly. If you need to remove damaged branches, this is best done in late summer. Watch your dogwood trees for disease. The delicate bark makes the tree susceptible to insect infestation. They are susceptible to anthracnose, a disease caused by the destructive discula fungus that causes leaves to spot or fall off.
Whether it’s a walk in the woods or just gazing out your garden window, take some time this coming spring to enjoy the splendor of the Pacific dogwood. Watch its morphing beauty in summer and fall until it falls again for the coming winter.
Kathi Joye is a former University of California Master Gardener from Tuolumne County who lives among the dogwoods at 4,000 feet.