I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like flowering dogwoods. The white and pink “flowers” (they’re technically bracts), borne on beautiful architectural branches cover the trees in spring. Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is native to the eastern US, but there’s a little-known West Coast relative that’s just as beautiful.
The showy bracts of Pacific dogwood open chartreuse green and mature to pure white.
Photo Credit: Lane Greer
Late-summer fruit resembles prickly, orange-red golf balls.
Photo Credit: Lane Greer
The tree’s large bracts light up the garden in spring
Photo Credit: Mark Fishbein
Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) – sometimes called Western or mountain dogwood – has even larger bracts and is also incredibly showy in spring. The bad news: Only denizens of the Left Coast can enjoy this beautiful native tree. As Paul Cappiello writes in his book, Dogwoods (Timber Press), “[This] dogwood is essentially like most people, preferring moderate temperatures, not too cold and not too warm.” That’s why you’ll find the tree growing only between British Columbia and central California, in Sunset zones 3b-9 and 14-20 (or in USDA hardiness zones 7-9, but only on the West Coast).
Pacific dogwoods can reach 50 feet tall (but they’re usually about half that size) and grow more upright than flowering dogwoods. Typically, the flowers have six white bracts (sorry, no pink!), although that number can range from four to eight. Each bract can reach 3 inches wide, with the flowers appearing just after the leaves unfurl in spring. Another great bonus with Pacific dogwood is the fruit (which is much larger than flowering dogwood’s). It looks like prickly, orange-red golf balls!
The best way to grow Pacific dogwood trees is to mimic where they’re found in nature. Plants need really good – no, make that great drainage. Give them the summer water regime typical of Mediterranean climates – which is to say, almost none (so they’re extremely tolerant of drought). Avoid planting them in shady places where their leaves will stay wet. Pacific dogwood is especially susceptible to anthracnose, so you’ll want the foliage to stay as dry as possible.
There are a few nice cultivars available: ‘Colrigo Giant’ (named after the Colorado River Gorge, where it was found) has 8-inch-wide bracts, ‘Goldspot’ has yellow-dappled foliage, and ‘Monarch’ tends to spread out and can be twice as wide as it is tall.
I find it intriguing that few people living in Washington, Oregon and Northern California grow Pacific dogwoods. After all, we’re the only people in our country who can! So don’t wait to come across them during a nature hike – grow your own instead!