It’s difficult to find a true 4 season plant. Some plants have a beautiful early spring bloom, forgotten by May. Some have brilliant fall color, but are bland the rest of the year. Others stand out all summer only to succumb to winter.
Dogwoods have all year staying power.
These small trees, shrubs and, yes, even ground covers, have all the seasons covered. They begin in spring with their blooms. Some dogwood flowers are not flowers at all, they actually bracts (large leaves). But all dogwood flowers come in a beautiful cream color and are loved by pollinators, especially native bees.
As the spring flowers fade, the leaves are not far behind. There are many cultivars with variegated foliage of creams and yellow. You won’t be the only one enjoying the leaves. They are eaten by the caterpillars of the Spring Azure butterfly and Giant Silk Moth. The leaves also provide perfect nesting for songbirds like yellow warblers.
Soon the tree grows its summer berries. These can be bright red, white or even blue! They don’t last long as they are a favorite of birds. Over 35 species flock to these fruits, including bluebirds and waxwings, squirrels, chipmunks, ground birds like turkey.
These berries give way to blazing fall foliage. Many of the dogwoods boast yellows, reds and purples into autumn.
Finally, dogwoods brighten up the winter landscape with their bright twig tips. These bring color to dreary weather and stand out sharply against snow.
Dogwoods for the Whole Country
Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)
First up is the Flowering Dogwood. This is THE flowering tree that most associate with spring. Its white flowers appear just after those of the native redbud tree. Theses white flowers (or pink) are actually leaf bracts. The real flower is tiny and hidden at the base of the what we think of as the flower. This flower progresses to red fruit in late summer that is loved by birds. This fruit is followed by a glowing red fall color.
This tree grows in zones 5 to 8 and averages about 20 feet tall and wide. It is native to Florida east to Texas. It is found as far north as Illinois and east to the ocean. In these areas it likes thickets and stream banks, but also grows in drier wooded slopes.
Flowering dogwoods works best in the wildlife backyard as a specimen tree, or in a woodland setting. In the warmer zones, needs a layer of mulch to cool the roots. Don’t make a ‘mulch volcano’ and have it touch the bark.
Alternate Leaf Dogwood or Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alterniflolia)
For those in the north who can’t grow a Flowering Dogwood, the alternate leaf dogwood is an excellent substitute. Reaching 20 feet tall, its horizontal branches make it look layered. Add in reddish-purple bark and cream flowers in early summer for a beautiful tree.
As the only native dogwood with alternately placed leaves, it turns maroon in fall after producing red berries that grouse love.
This small tree is native from newfoundland to the southern Appalachians, west to Missouri. It is happy in zones 3 to 7.
Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum)
The silky dogwood would love to brighten-up the soggy spot in your wildlife backyard. It grows in zones 4 to 8. This dogwood is more of a shrub than a tree, reaching about 12 feet tall. You will know if it is happy in its spot if it begins to form a thicket. Beyond tolerating wet areas, it also can grow under walnut trees. While it loves wet spots, it will also grow in medium soils if the roots are kept cool. Silky dogwoods make a great backdrop for a rain garden.
This dogwood has creamy white blooms in mid spring that attract bees and butterflies. The flowers are followed by blue fruits with a high fat content loved by birds. In the fall it turns a brilliant red and in winter the red twigs stand out against a snowy background.
Native east of the Mississippi, silky dogwood is perfect for a shady spot.
It prefers part shade but will tolerate almost full shade.
Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)
While the silky dogwood was small, the bunchberry is even smaller. This is the smallest of the North American dogwoods and is more of a groundcover than a shrub. This little plant grows about 5 inches tall.
Bunchberries are a bit tricky to grow, unless you live in their native area. They can be grown in zones 2 to 6 and need moist soil. They don’t like the sun, so plant them in shade to part shade. They also are not a fan of hot summers.
If you can get this amazing groundcover to grow, it will reward you and your wildlife with small white flowers followed by bright red berries.
Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)
While most dogwoods need a bit of moisture in their soil, the gray dogwood stands out with its ability to be grown in dry soil. It prefers rocky soil along streams but will sucker less in drier soil types. This tough shrub is also a great choice if road pollution is nearby. It prefers zones 4 to 8 and full sun to part shade.
Native from Ontario to Texas and east to the ocean this 12-15 feet tall shrub is multi stemmed. It produces small white flowers in early summer followed by white fruit which is loved by birds, specifically the Northern Flicker, Downy Woodpecker and Eastern Bluebird.
Fall color is light red with red twig tips for winter interest.
Roughleaf Dogwood (Cornus drummondii)
Roughleaf dogwoods are another great choice for dry soils, but will also grow in wet and poor soil. This shrub spreads by underground stems when happy and can form a large colony 6-15 feet tall. Because of this, the roughleaf dogwood makes a perfect privacy screen or natural windbreak. It is a midwestern native growing in zones 5 to 8.
Its flowers are small and not much to look at, but the fruit is beautiful. It has bright white drupes in late summer. They can be quickly snached up by the birds so don’t miss out on the show.
In the fall the leaves turn purple or red and have red twig tips that persist into winter.
Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)
The red twig dogwood is a versatile native shrub. Its native range spans much of the United States, happy from Alaska to Utah and east all the way to the coast. It grows best in zones 2 to 8, reaching about 10 foot tall but more commonly about 6 feet. It is not picky about soil, it grows in medium and boggy ground.
This suckering shrub makes a great natural privacy fence. With small creamy white flowers in early summer followed by white or blue fruits. The fall leaves turn a brilliant red to orange, fading to purple as the season progresses.
While beautiful during the warmer months, this shrub is known for its winter color. New growth on the shrub is a bright red that cheers the winter landscape. There are also cultivars with yellow twigs to add variety. Plant them in groupings for the best winter color.
Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii)
This western dogwood is native to west coast from Canada into California up to 200 miles inland. There is a small natural population in north-central Idaho. A true coastal tree, it loves humidity and cool, moist summer soil. It likes part shade because its thin bark can be easily sunburnt. It is not a fan of cold weather so grow it in zones 6-8.
The pacific dogwood is large for its species. It is a 20 foot tree with multiple trunks, and may reach 30 feet. Its multiple trunks make an irregular form that adds character to the tree. White flowers appear in spring and can be followed by a second bloom in late summer.
The red fruits in fall are favorite of the band-tailed pigeon. They are complemented with red fall foliage color.
Roundleaf Dogwood (Cornus rugosa)
Finally we come to the roundleaf dogwood. This understory species leans more toward the sun side of the spectrum, tolerating only a little shade. It is a great choice for northern gardens as it is native from Ontario to south to Nebraska, east the the Atlantic. Not a fan of heat, grow this dogwood in zones 3 to 6.
This small tree makes a great backdrop or informal hedge, topping out at about 10 feet. It has large white spring flower heads followed by late summer fruit.
In the fall the leaves have brilliant colors of maroon, pink or violet. Sometimes all on the same tree!
There is a dogwood for every wildlife backyard in the USA, so this spring consider adding one to yours.