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May is Dogwood month in my book

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The Whistling Gardener

In early May our Pacific Coast Dogwood is usually in full regalia. These large trees have graced our landscapes for centuries with their ethereal white blooms but unfortunately have become a magnet for disease in recent years and now they are hard to find in the industry.

By mid-May the Atlantic Coast Dogwood is strutting its stuff with not only the traditional white blooms (which are slightly smaller than our native version) but also several shades of pink. This east coast dogwood is the variety that has been planted in our area for years. It is a flat topped tree that in its native habitat grows as an under-story tree but here in the northwest will do fine in sun or partial shade. It also has some disease issues although not as severe as our native version.

Finally, by the end of May and into early June the Korean Dogwoods start to bloom, also with white to pink blooms, and form a rounded tree about 15 to 20 feet tall. In the summer they sport a round strawberry looking fruit that is a nice distraction. They have proven to be the most disease resistant varieties so far.

So, we have west coast, east coast and Korean varieties. And just to muddy the waters, the breeders have found a way to cross them all together so we have hybrids of all of them. Isn't that just hunky-dory?

Here's a quick synopsis of what is out there. There are many other cultivars but these are the more readily available forms.

Cornus florida Atlantic Coast Dogwood. "rubra" is pink. The "Cherokee" series has better disease resistance.Princess is white. Brave is red. Daybreak is white with white/green foliage. Sunset is red with yellow/green foliage.

Cornus kousa Korean Dogwood. Often sold as "kousa chinensis". Milky Way is creamy white. Satomi is pink Heart Throb is pink. Samaritan has white flowers w/green and white foliage. Gold Star has white flowers w/gold center in the leaves.

Cornus nuttalii Pacific Coast Dogwood. For all practical purposes is not available.

The Hybrids here is where it gets fun. These were bred at Rutgers University and supposedly have the best properties of both species. Growth habit and disease resistance is more like the Koreans, but flower size is more like the Eastern and Pacific varieties.

Kousa/Florida cross: "Aurora" and "Celestial" are both white flowering and "Stellar Pink" is soft pink.

Kousa/Nuttalii cross: "Starlight" has creamy white flowers and orange fruit. It is probably the closest to our Pacific Dogwood that you will find available.

All and all, dogwoods are well suited to our northwest climate. Except for some issues with a leaf disease call anthracnose, they have no insect problems and no other disease problems. The Atlantic varieties grow to about 15 feet tall, the Korean ones can reach 20 feet and the Pacific hybrids will top out at 25-30 feet. For all practical purposes, this is still considered a small tree.

Besides showy spring flowers, the Korean species and hybrids bear a round orange/red fruit about the size of a large olive which can be very decorative in the summer. And finally, fall color on dogwoods is some of the best we will find in our area.

You can plant dogwoods in the middle of a lawn or into a mixed border or even under tall trees where they will receive filtered sunlight. I don't think a full shade situation would be in their best interest if you want to see any flowers. Speaking of flowers, expect to wait 2-3 years after you plant yours for it to get established before it starts to bloom on a regular schedule. Once established, keep pruning and fertilizing to a minimum. Dogwoods will bloom best if they are left along and not pampered except for some summer irrigation.

May is the best time to shop for a new dogwood tree for your garden. Nurseries have the best selection now and they will settle into their new home quickly. Always check for good drainage anytime you plant a tree or shrub in our glacial till soils. Lack of drainage equals slow death to a new plant, no matter where you purchased it from.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, a retail garden center that is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. You can reach Steve at 425-334-2002 or online at

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