Gardenwise: Two Trees That Will Bring a Spring to Your Step This Season

Pictured Above: The vibrant colors of this magnificent eastern redbud complement those of the tulips growing underneath it. | Vincent Simeone photo

by Susan Tito 

There’s no denying that we gardeners love our spring-flowering trees. The natural world abounds with many attractive species, but to me our native flowering dogwood and eastern redbud represent the best of the bunch. When they are in bloom, it’s easy to forget that winter ever happened. 

To gaze upon either of these trees is a treat. The redbud, Cercis canadensis, is known for its signature heart-shaped leaves and showy, magenta-colored pea-like flowers, which emerge before the tree leafs out later in the season. 

The dogwood, Cornus florida, also offers up beautiful blooms, but this tree has multiseasonal interest. In late summer, its leaves turn a glorious shade of red, and in winter its scaly bark resembles alligator skin. 

Fun fact: The dogwood’s flowers are really bracts, which are modified leaf structures. There are four petal-like bracts surrounding the real flowers, which comprise a minuscule yellowish-green cluster. 

But unless you are a science geek, you’re not going to care much about which part of the bloom is the actual flower. I’m betting that you’re already enamored by this native tree! 

Good looks aside, there are many reasons to love both dogwood and redbud. Chief among them is their size. If you have a small to medium-sized garden, chances are you have the room to grow either of these beauties, which top out at about 30 feet tall. 

Both trees also serve another purpose: They attract wildlife.

Despite being located in a compacted site at the base of downspout, this old flowering dogwood continues to put on a worthwhile spring show. |   Sandra Vultaggio photo
Despite being located in a compacted site at the base of downspout, this old flowering dogwood continues to put on a worthwhile spring show. | Sandra Vultaggio photo

Flowering dogwood produces seeds consumed by songbirds, chipmunks and squirrels, while redbud is a source of early-season nectar for honeybees.

The dogwood has an added bonus: It is considered a “soil improver,” said Sandra Vultaggio, a horticulture consultant with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead. Its leaves decompose at a faster rate than those of other tree species, enriching the soil with organic matter.

“Both dogwoods and redbuds are great selections for areas of the property that get less sun,” said Ms. Vultaggio. “They are both considered understory trees, enjoying some protection from the hot, afternoon sun.”

Dogwood and redbud thrive in naturalized settings and woodland margins. “Edge habitats, where they receive some shade from taller oaks or pines, would be a nice spot for them — and often not hard to find here on Long Island,” she said. 

Unfortunately, the native dogwood has gotten a bad rap in recent years because of its vulnerability to anthracnose, a devastating fungal disease that wiped out scores of these trees starting in the 1970s. 

The good news is that Rutgers University has been doing extensive work on dogwood breeding. It introduced its Stellar Series®, the products of which are the result of cross-breeding native dogwood with the Kousa dogwood, Cornus kousa, a hardier Asian species. These newer varieties have given the commercial dogwood nursery industry a much-needed shot in the arm.

“There are about 100 cultivars of flowering dogwood, developed for larger, showier flowers, different colors, foliage variegation and most important, disease and insect resistance,” said Ms. Vultaggio.

When it comes to dogwood, is this one instance in which the native species isn’t better? The experts say no.

“If you have the right site for it, the native dogwood would be a valuable species to plant,” said Ms. Vultaggio. “Old, established Cornus florida bring back memories of years past. I remember walking with my grandmother when I was little and she would point them out on her property. I’m lucky to have three very old ones on my own property now as well.”

This pink flowering dogwood is native to the eastern United States. | Vincent Simeone photo
This pink flowering dogwood is native to the eastern United States. | Vincent Simeone photo

Whether you go native or choose a non-native dogwood, “be sure to site it properly, in a location with good air circulation, and shade it from western exposure,” said Mina Vescera, a nursery/landscape specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead. “Redirect lawn irrigation heads so they’re not directly hitting your dogwoods — this can promote infection.”

Bottom line: You really can’t go wrong to have either redbud or dogwood on your property.

What redbud and dogwood lack in stature, they more than make up in beauty and versatility. If you don’t already have one of these stunners, consider planting one on your property. 

You won’t be going out on a limb — I promise. 

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County named both tree species Gold Medal winners through its Long Island Gold Medal Plant Program. Redbud was a Gold Medal winner in 2013; flowering dogwood took top honors in 2014. Gold Medal winners are exceptional ornamental plants that will thrive in the Long Island home landscape. 

Visit cesuffolk.org/gardening/long-island-gold-medal-plant-program to learn more about these trees and other Gold Medal winners. 


Susan Tito
Susan Tito

Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Communicators International. She can be reached at stito630@gmail.com.

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