The Plant Native

Native Dogwoods: A Beginner’s Guide

Native dogwood trees are beloved trees, especially when blooming in the spring. Dogwoods are known for their gorgeous flowers, berries loved by birds, and their fiery leaf color in the fall. There are 30+ dogwood species worldwide; 12 dogwoods are native to the United States and Canada (including some of the most gorgeous ones!) Learn how to plant and care for them, and how to spot these gorgeous native trees below.

A knock-out combo: Eastern Flowering Dogwood in white + Redbud in purple (seen in background)

North America’s native dogwoods are a beloved part of American storytelling and gardening, including being planted by both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson

In this guide, we’ll explore the 12 unique native dogwood species (not including cultivars!), their distinguishing features, native ranges, tips for finding and caring for them, as well as the challenges you may encounter. By the end, you’ll be inspired to plant a few native dogwoods in your garden.

First off…’dogwood’ is a very strange name. You’re probably wondering…

Where did the name Dogwood come from?

The name ‘dogwood’ has a fun, culinary backstory. The name comes from its smooth, straight twigs that long-ago generations used as skewers for cooking meat. These skewers were once called ‘dags’ or ‘dogs,‘ so essentially, dogwood means ‘skewer wood.’

Now, let’s meet the 12 “skewer-trees” native to North America:

Native species of dogwood

These native dogwoods are all worthy of planting in our gardens, ASAP. 

Native dogwoods with single flowers

1.

Eastern Flowering Dogwood

Cornus Florida

If you’ve been on the East Coast and seen a gorgeous small tree covered in four-petaled flowers, it was probably an Eastern Flowering Dogwood. This native tree covers itself in flowers in the mid to late spring. In the fall, its leaves turn beautiful dark red. It is a perfect statement tree.

2.

Pacific Dogwood

Cornus nuttallii

Pacific Dogwood has showy white bracts and is the official flower of British Columbia, Canada. It looks very similar to the Eastern Flowering Dogwood but—as you probably guessed!—is native to the west coast.

3.

Bunchbush or Creeping Dogwood

Cornus amomum

Bunchbush or Creeping Dogwood is the shortest of the dogwoods, at only 6″ high! It is a lovely groundcover option. In the spring, it covers itself in the four-petaled flowers seen in Pacific and Eastern Flowering Dogwood trees. A perfect choice for shady areas.

Native dogwoods with clumps of flowers

4.

Alternate-leafed or Pagoda Dogwood 

Cornus alternifolia

Alternative-leaf Dogwoods grow branches in long horizontal layers, almost like a cake, giving an architectural elegance. They cover these branches with creamy small flowers in the late spring/early summer, which then turn into dark blue berries in the early fall. These fruits are bird favorites! They are a perfect statement tree.

5.

Gray Dogwood

Cornus racemosa

Looking for a verdant privacy fence that will be covered in birds? Gray Dogwoods are for you. Gray Dogwoods form thick walls of shrubbery, which are then covered in flowers, tiny white berries, and brightly covered stems. Gray Dogwoods like a wide range of soil, making them perfect for beginner gardeners. It’s a four-season stunner that’s a no-brainer to plant.

6.

Green Osier Dogwood 

Cornus viridissima

Green Osiers stems are bright yellow-green and highly visible when their leaves fall in the winter. Green Osiers flower in the late spring to early summer with yellow flowers. 

7.

Red Osier Dogwood 

Cornus sericea

Red Osiers’ stems look hand-dipped in red paint when their leaves fall in the winter. Red Osiers flower in the late spring to early summer with lightly scented white flowers. In the fall, leaves turn orange. Red Osiers prefers wetter areas (perfect for rain gardens!)

8.

Round-leaved Dogwood 

Cornus rugosa

Round-leaved Dogwood shrubs can quickly thrive and create dense growth, thanks to their ability to expand via suckers. Their leaves offer beautiful dappled shade. White flowers and white berries offer food for both pollinators and birds.

9.

Silky Dogwood

Cornus amomum

Silky Dogwood showcases silky-haired leaves, white flowers, and vibrant blue fruit. (Sorry, the fruit is edible only to birds!)

10.

Swamp or Stiff Dogwood

Cornus foemina

Swamp or Stiff Dogwood thrives in wet areas and can handle a range of soil conditions. Swamp Dogwood is perfect for rain gardens. It is also a host plant for the absolutely stunning Spring Azure Butterfly.

Other native dogwood species

Besides these 10 species of native dogwood, there are two more including:

What dogwood species are not native?

As mentioned earlier, there are around 30 dogwood species worldwide. We already met the 12 North American natives. The rest are native to Asia and Europe. You often encounter some of the non-native species in yards and plant nurseries, including:

  • Siberian Dogwood (Cornus alba) known for its red stems—but plant a Red Osier if you want this!
  • Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa) has white flowers, similar to the Eastern White and Pacific Dogwood. It’s unclear why this is used so much in American landscaping when the Eastern Flowering and Pacific Dogwoods are just as gorgeous and thrive in North America. (Kousas are native to Japan.)

Whenever possible—plant native dogwoods. As you can see from the list of 12 native North American dogwoods above, there is a remarkable native dogwood alternative for every one of the non-native dogwoods.

Want gorgeous four-petaled flowers?

Swap a Kousa for an Eastern Flowering or Pacific Dogwood.

Want red branches?

Swap Siberian Dogwood for Red Osier Dogwood.

Want to see more of these Spring Azure butterflies? Plant native dogwoods

Dogwoods are host plants for the Spring Azure butterfly

Native dogwoods are host plants for the stunning Spring Azure butterfly. If you need one more reason why we should plant native dogwoods over non-native dogwoods—this is it. Non-native dogwoods do not provide a food source for these beautiful creatures. Simply put, if we want to keep Blue Azures alive, we need to plant native dogwoods.

Planting native dogwoods ensures our gardens and landscapes look amazing, and that wildlife has the food and homes to keep thriving.

If you’re looking for other flowering native shrubs and trees…

There are many other native flowering trees

If you’re interested in other native trees and shrubs that make gorgeous flowers, there are lots to pick from. Favorite flowering trees like magnolias, Redbud, Tulip Poplars, Southern Catalpa, and Pawpaws are gorgeous, alongside flowering shrubs like Oakleaf Hydrangea, Sweetshrub, Mountain Laurel, and Azaleas.

Native flowering trees
flame-azalea-native-plant-shrub

Azalea

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Cucumber Magnolia

mountain-laurel-native-shrub-flower

Mountain Laurel

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Oakleaf Hydrangea

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Pawpaw Tree

redbud-tree-in-bloom-native-tree

Redbud

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Southern Catalpa

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Southern Magnolia

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Sweetshrub

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Tulip Poplar

Congratulations, you’ve met the North American native dogwoods! These trees have been prized for centuries for their beauty and they are ready to flourish in your yard. With various species to choose from, you’ll find the perfect fit for your region and gardening goals. Visit local nurseries, explore the options, and bring their gorgeousness into your own yard. 

UPDATED —
02/19/2024
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