Dogwoods finicky but worth the trouble

In the South, clouds of white dogwood blossoms are as much a symbol of Easter as lilies.

It’s easy to see why. They’re usually in bloom around the Easter season and the cross-shaped flowers bear the shape of nail prints at the petal tips, a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice.

Our yard had four beautiful, mature specimens when we moved here 12 years ago. I was thrilled by the lacy layers of blooms our first spring. Since then, three have died and the remaining one’s days are numbered.

And the demise in our yard isn’t an isolated instance.

Dogwood flowers are in the shape of a cross with nail holes.

According to LSU AgCenter horticulturist Dr. Allen Owings, dogwoods have been declining and dying steadily over the last 20 years, both in home landscapes and in the wild. Factors include diseases like dogwood anthracnose and powdery mildew, pests like dogwood borers, climate change and drought.Don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to give up on such an icon of Southern spring, so I asked LSU AgCenter forester Ricky Kilpatrick for his tips on growing them.

Here’s what he said:

  • Plant them in sandy, well-drained, acid soil.  “Dogwoods are one of the worst trees for being overwatered. They’re finicky. They don’t like to be messed with at all. They like to be left alone.”  That means no fertilizing or pruning or watering, except in drought. Avoid planting them in an area that will get regularly irrigated, unless you have deep, sandy soil. If your soil is less than ideal, improve drainage by building a raised area for planting.
  • Site them in partial shade, preferably morning sun and afternoon shade. “Shade through the day is fine too as long as they get a little sunshine to get them to bloom.”
  • Plant them in late fall through mid-winter. And you’ll probably have better luck purchasing one than transplanting one from the wild. But if you want to try moving one from property you own to your yard, flag it in spring, so you can identify it after it loses its leaves. “Do it on a cold, wet winter day.”
  • Mulch with pine straw or bark mulch after the soil warms up.

Dogwoods are sold both generically and as named cultivars, including Appalachian Spring, which was developed as a disease-resistant variety by the University of Tennessee.

It’s too late now to start replanting, but next winter I hope to add some new dogwoods to my yard.  I wouldn’t want to celebrate Easter – or spring – without them.

Would you?

If your dogwood’s leaves look like this, it’s getting too much water. Photo courtesy of Ricky Kilpatrick/LSU AgCenter

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