The Appalachian Spring dogwood (Cornus florida ‘Appalachian Spring’) is an outstanding flowering tree that blooms in the Spring on leafless branches.
Fans of Japanese gardens, such as the one I used to work at, are often looking for Cherry blooms in Spring. Instead they should be looking for arguably the most beautiful of the native American flowering trees, the Flowering dogwood.
What makes this Flowering dogwood special is the fact that has strong resistance to the lethal disease of flowering dogwood trees, dogwood anthracnose (Discula sp.)
This great tree was introduced by the University of Tenneesee from a disease-free tree found in the Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland. This resistance to anthracnose is huge as those in the Eastern U.S. know how devastating this disease is to native Flowering dogwood trees.
Many nurseries will suggest the related Chinese or Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) as it is also called , instead of our native flowering dogwood due to it’s resistance to dogwood anthracnose.
Flowering dogwood vs Kousa dogwood
While the Kousa dogwood does have it’s proponents, I am not one of them for three reasons.
One, I have planted two Kousa dogwoods at separate times in my old yard and they both died. One from heat and dry conditions and the other from not getting established before a hard winter. While I didn’t baby these plants, they received a bit more care and watering then I usually do for plants are proved to be a bit too delicate for my needs.
Two, we had several Kousa dogwood at Anderson Gardens so I have experience pruning these trees in a Japanese Garden. As our primary pruning goal was aesthetics and size containment , I absolutely hated these trees. Their stiff upright growth habit made pruning them into a natural looking form an annual source of frustration.
Now while the better pruners at the garden (Iain, Tim and Keith) could certainly make them presentable, I can only remember one I was ever happy with after pruning. So if you are considering a Kousa dogwood for your Japanese Garden, I would reconsider.
If you intend to let your tree grow unrestrained, Kousa dogwoods do mature to a nice form eventually. Although I would argue that Flowering dogwood, such as the Appalachian Spring dogwood have a nicer more natural looking form.
The third and final reason, I don’t recommend Kousa dogwood when compared to our native Cornus florida, is that it is not native to North America. Thus it does not support the wildlife that our native Flowering Dogwood does. Sure Kousa dogwood fruit is eaten by squirrels and ants, but that is about it.
“We have planted Kousa dogwood, a species from China that supports no insect herbivores, instead of our native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) that supports 117 species of moths and butterflies alone.” – Doug Tallamy
This dogwood is a natural freak
The Appalachian Spring dogwood is not the product of genetic experiments ; it was discovered growing amid thousands of other trees that had died of anthracnose. While we may need to use DNA splicing and other forms of playing God to make Frankenstein like Chestnut trees that can survive diseases such as Chestnust Blight, the Appalachian Spring dogwood is a product of good old natural selection.
One tree out of thousands with a gene or two that protects it against a disease that afflicts most of it’s brothers and sisters. No Dr. Frankenstein required.
Appalachian Spring dogwood Facts
Hardiness zones: 5 – 9. One of the more cold hardy of the Flowering Dogwood cultivars. Don’t try and push the zone, any flowering dogwood planted in zone 4, is living on borrowed time.
Size: 15 to to 20 feet tall and 15 to 20 feet wide.
Growth rate: Medium (1-2 feet per year average). Slow after transplanting, but after becoming established it reaches a medium growth rate. It can reach 20 feet in 10 years in ideal conditions.
Soil: Best in moist nutrient-rich soil. It will tolerate a range of soil conditions although it prefers slightly acid loam. It will tolerate clay as well as growing near Black Walnuts. It won’t tolerate dry soil, so it’s it will need water during dry spells.
Light: It grows best in full sun but will tolerate part shade sites. Although found as an under story tree in Eastern woodlands. I recommend planting it in Full sun . There it will be less likely to suffer from diseases then in partial sun, especially in humid Midwestern climates such as mine near Chicago.
Bark: As it ages it’s attractive dark colored bark will begin to resemble alligator skin.
Flowers: The Appalachian Spring dogwood blooms in early spring (April or early May most) shortly after, but usually overlapping, the blooms of the redbuds. It has the typical snow white Flowering dogwood blooms we associate with these trees.
Fruit: Attractive, abundant, bright red fruits that are NOT edible to humans (some say they are poisonous) but are loved by birds. They mature and the end of summer or early fall. They will usually be gone before the start of winter.
Fall Color: The apple green leaves turn a nice red to purple color in the fall. Definitely a four season interest tree.
Wildlife Value: Birds, deer and other mammals will enjoy the fruit. Appalachian Spring dogwood is a host to the caterpillar of the Spring Azure butterfly (Celastrina ladon) and Dogwood thyatirid moth (Euthyatira pudens).
Verdict: Flowering Dogwood is one of the most beautiful American trees. They have showy early spring white flowers, red fruit, and scarlet red fall foliage. The Appalachian Spring dogwood is one of the best. It is a great native tree for use in nature inspired gardens, Japanese Gardens, and other landscapes where four season interest trees are appreciated.
While no flowering dogwood would be considered a tough tree, this selection is toughest where it counts. While it does have some disease and pest problems, it is highly resistant to the greatest threat to our native Flowering dogwood, anthracnose.
This dogwood also supports a wide range of native wildlife and is an important part of the ecology of the eastern half of the US.
If you have a sunnier spot and are looking for a smaller four season interest tree and your soil is not too dry, you should strongly consider adding the Appalachian Spring dogwood. I am.