Flowering dogwood is a beautiful shrub to small tree with a straggling, spreading crown. Missouri’s official state tree, it presents lovely boughs of white inflorescences in springtime forests.
Leaves are opposite, simple, egg-shaped, 3–5 inches long, dark green, with slightly wavy edges.
Bark is dark gray to brown with thin, squarish plates.
Twigs are flexible, slender, reddish-gray to purplish, or greenish with red dots, hairy, with flower buds terminal. Leaf buds are compressed and oval.
Flowers are small, in inflorescences (flower clusters) of 25–30, surrounded by 4 large, white (sometimes pink) petal-like bracts, and appear in early spring before the leaves. Bracts are 1¼–2½ inches long and are notched at the tip. Blooms mid-April to mid-May.
Fruits are scarlet, egg-shaped berries (drupes), ½ inch long, in clusters of 2–6, appearing August–November.
Similar species: Missouri has 5 species in the genus Cornus. Flowering dogwood is identified by its combination of opposite leaves, dense flowerheads with 4 showy bracts, and oval red fruits.
Habitat and Conservation
Flowering dogwood was officially declared Missouri's state tree in 1955. It delights us with its beauty all year long, with its clouds of white flowers visible in springtime woodlands, its attractive green midsummer foliage, its brilliant red or orange leaves and bright red berries in fall, and its interesting bark in winter.
Flowering dogwood and its many cultivars are favorite small, spring-flowering trees for landscaping. Historically, the plant has been used to make inks and dyes as well as medicine. The wood has been used for golf club heads and even skewers for cooking.
Flowering dogwood and other blooming understory trees such as redbud beautify our woodlands in spring, lifting our hearts and inspiring tourism. Dogwoods also contribute greatly to fall color, and fall color is also good for Missouri tourism.
You know you are progressing in your knowledge of plants when you can see that the structures that look like petals in dogwood are not petals at all, and that they instead are petal-like modified leaves called bracts that are arranged beneath a cluster of rather inconspicuous flowers.
Folklorist Vance Randolph recorded that oldtime Ozarkers told the story that the cross that was used to crucify Jesus was made of dogwood (which was supposed to have commonly grown as tall as a large tree at the time of Christ), and that he cursed the species for its role in his death, causing it to grow “stunted and twisted, unfit for any kind of lumber.” Additionally, the tale points to various parts of the floral anatomy that would seem to sync up with elements of the story: the cluster of flowers at the center that fancifully resembles a crown of thorns, the shallow notches at the tip of the white bracts representing nail holes with red or brown “bloodstains,” and so on. The story is kept alive on postcards, placards, and other gift items. Flowering dogwood, by the way, is native only to eastern North America and does not occur in the Old World except where it has been planted as an ornamental. Randolph also noted that a competing Ozark folk tale maintained that it was the willow, not the dogwood, that was the guilty, accursed tree.
The fruits are eaten by squirrels and white-tailed deer and are a preferred food for wild turkey and at least 28 other species of birds, including northern bobwhite and many types of songbirds.
As an understory and forest border tree, dogwood provides nesting space, food, and cover for many mammals and birds.
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. Innumerable other insects eat or drink sap from the leaves. These insects, in turn, become food for birds and other insect-eating animals.