Dogwoods are shrubs or small trees. The buds are scaly, and the flowers, fruits, and bark are distinctive.
The leaves are opposite (alternate in one of our species), simple, with entire or wavy margins, dark green upper sides and usually with paler undersides. The secondary leaf veins are strongly arched toward the leaf tip, becoming irregularly fused toward the leaf margin. The leaves typically turn various shades of orange, red, and maroon in the fall.
The flowers are positioned in clusters at the branch tips. In flowering dogwood (C. florida), these clusters are subtended by 4 showy white bracts that resemble petals. In our other species, the flowers lack such bracts and are not very showy, with only small, white, cream-colored, or greenish-yellow petals.
The fruits are berrylike (technically, drupes), ovoid to spherical, each with 1 or 2 oblong seeds. The fruits of flowering dogwood are bright red, while the rest are either white or dark blue. The stalks bearing the fruits are bright red in some species.
There are two major groups of dogwoods. One group has red fruits and large petal-like bracts beneath the flower cluster — among Missouri’s native dogwoods, it is represented only by flowering dogwood. The other group, which comprises all our other native dogwoods, has either blue or white fruits and completely lacks or has only very small bracts beneath the flower cluster.
Missouri has 5 species of dogwoods:
- Flowering dogwood (C. florida) grows along wooded slopes, ravines, along bluffs, upland ridges, and old fields that are turning back into woods; it is less common on glades, valleys, and low ground; it prefers well-drained, acid-based soils and shady locations. It occurs mostly in the Ozarks, but it is also present north of the Missouri River, particularly in the eastern half of the state. Flowering dogwood is identified by its combination of opposite leaves, dense flowerheads with 4 showy bracts, and oval red fruits. It is Missouri’s official state tree, producing lovely boughs of white inflorescences (flower clusters) in our springtime forests.
- Alternate-leaved dogwood (C. alternifolia) grows on wooded, north-facing slopes and along wooded banks of streams. Although it is cultivated statewide, it grows naturally only in central and northeast Missouri, and south through the central Ozarks. It might be confused with flowering dogwood, but alternate-leaved dogwood is the only Missouri dogwood with alternate (not opposite) leaves. Fruits are dark blue or bluish black. Flower clusters lack showy bracts.
- Rough-leaved dogwood (C. drummondii) is perhaps the most common species found in disturbed habitats and tolerates drier conditions than other dogwoods. It occurs statewide. It can hybridize with other dogwoods, and you may find an individual plant or a small colony (spread via root sprouts) with characteristics intermediate between the two parent species. Identify rough-leaved dogwood by its roughened upper leaf surface, the secondary veins somewhat crowded toward the leaf base (most secondary veins arise in the basal half of the leaf), and the white fruits. Flower clusters lack showy bracts.
- Gray dogwood (stiff dogwood) (C. foemina) grows in swamps, bottomland forests, moist upland forests in ravines, banks of streams and rivers, margins of ponds and lakes, bases of bluffs, fens, acid seeps, and edges of bottomland and upland prairies; also fencerows, old fields, ditches, railroads, and roadsides. It is scattered nearly statewide but absent from most of the Unglaciated Plains of northern Missouri. Identify it by its opposite leaves with mostly 3 or 4 pairs of side veins (not 5 or 6), upper leaf surface smooth (not strongly roughened), flower clusters not dense heads, lacking showy bracts beneath, spherical (not egg-shaped) fruit, blue or white, and young twigs smooth (not hairy).
- There are two subspecies of C. foemina that used to be considered separate species: Gray dogwood (spp. foemina) has a more widespread distribution in our state; its fruits are white. Stiff dogwood (ssp. racemosa) occurs only in the southeast and has fruits that are light blue or blue-and-white mottled (when it was considered a separate species, its name was C. racemosa).
- Swamp dogwood (silky dogwood; pale dogwood) (C. amomum) grows in wet locations, including banks of streams and rivers, margins of ponds and lakes, fens, bottomland forests, low moist places in prairies, and pastures, fencerows, railroads, and roadsides. It occurs scattered nearly statewide. Identify it by its silky-hairy, often maroon twigs, smooth leaves with 5 or 6 pairs of side veins, club-shaped style (broadened toward the tip), relatively long sepals, lack of showy bracts, and blue fruits.
Similar species: Several species of nonnative dogwoods are used in landscaping, including red twig (red osier) dogwood (C. sericea, native to our west, north, and east), kousa dogwood (C. kousa, native to Japan, Korea, and China), cornelian cherry dogwood (C. mas, native to Europe and western Asia), giant dogwood (C. controversa, native to Japan, China, and the Himalayas), and bunchberry (C. canadansis, native to northern North America, Greenland, and eastern Asia). You may see these in parks, street plantings, and home landscaping.
Missouri’s other native members of the dogwood family are in a different genus, Nyssa: swamp tupelo (N. aquatica), swamp black gum (N. biflora), and black gum (N. sylvatica).
Habitat and Conservation
Dogwoods are prized for their hard wood, which withstands sudden hard shocks and wears smoother, not rougher, with use. It has been used for items ranging from spears and daggers to weaving shuttles, golf heads, pulleys, wedges, mallet heads, knitting needles, hog yokes, hay forks, cutting boards, mountain dulcimers, decorative pen barrels, cooking spoons, and more. If you hammer straight onto the end of a stick of dogwood, it won’t splinter or broom out. One theory for the name “dogwood” is that it’s derived from “dag wood,” for making daggers and other sharp tools.
Several dogwood species are cultivated in the Midwest as hedges, specimen plants, and ornamentals — especially cultivars with red or yellow stems. Flowering dogwood, Missouri’s state tree, is lovely in all seasons, with white inflorescences in spring, deep green leaves in summer, red berries in late summer, bright reddish foliage in fall, and interesting bark and buds in winter. The others lack the white inflorescences but instead may have striking blue or white berries that contrast with their purplish fall foliage.
Dogwoods contribute to the overall look of fall color, and fall color is good for Missouri tourism. Would driving to a fall festival out in the country be the same without the pretty autumn scenery?
Native Americans apparently prepared a tobacco substitute from strips of the bark of several species under the name kinnikinnick.
Some nonnative dogwoods produce fruits that are edible for humans. One of these, the European species C. mas (Cornelian cherry), is made into jams and syrups. The fruit of our native dogwoods, however, is not edible for people.
Various species of dogwoods have been used worldwide for a variety of medicinal uses, including as a substitute for quinine in treating fevers.
Dogwood fruits provide food for various mammals and birds and are recommended for wildlife plantings. Among the animals that eat them are northern bobwhite, wild turkey, squirrels, white-tailed deer. Among the many songbirds that may nosh on dogwood fruits are waxwings, robins, mockingbirds, catbirds, sparrows, titmice, cardinals, juncos, mourning doves, and blue jays.
Dogwoods are larval food plants for several groups of butterflies and moths, including the spring azure, dogwood thyatirid, one-spotted variant, friendly probole, and false crocus geometer. Many other insects feed on or drink sap from the foliage; one example is the dogwood spittlebug, a squat, black-and-yellow hopping insect. All of these insects, of course, are food for birds and other insect-eating animals.
Dogwoods, being understory trees in woodlands and contributing to thickets in open areas, provide cover as well as food for many types of animals. Many species of birds and small mammals nest in thickets and small understory trees.