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Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Jim Lakin MD, Master Gardener

Looking for a small tree to add to your landscape? Consider the Pagoda Dogwood, it grows quickly and offers delicious berries for the birds in late summer. Read more about this attractive tree here.

Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

January is a time for planning.  Where to put the annuals can be figured out on the fly. Perennial forbs take a bit of thought but you can dig most of them up if you want to move them next year. However, tree placement should be very carefully considered. What looks good now will be there years from now and may not look so good. Short of a chainsaw massacre, you’ll be stuck with the ill-considered tree.

Then, of course, you have to consider size. Do you really want a 90-foot white oak in your 12 x 16 courtyard? Fortunately, if you are looking for a small tree, you have many excellent choices, one of which is the Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) or alternate-leaved dogwood.  This beauty is a common understory tree which grows rapidly as a youngster, adding a new tier of branches each season.

Pagoda dogwood is native to northeastern North America and is found in central and southern Minnesota, Iowa and all the way down to the Ozarks. It does best in well-drained soils and will have difficulty in clay or compacted soils. In the wild it is found in moist woodlands so it is best to plant it where it is protected from the hot afternoon sun. Observing this caveat, it will grow in full sun if there is sufficient moisture, but it will do better in part to near-full shade. One of its most compelling features is the berries produced in late summer, greatly loved by the birds. For good fruit-set, however two separate trees are needed.  After a time, some trunks will suddenly die and turn orange. Quick rejuvenation is possible by pruning away the dead trunk.  Select a vigorous new shoot from the sprouts that usually emerge quickly.

Pagoda dogwood’s horizontal tiers of branches give the tree its name and render it a charming ornamental at the corner of the house or the edger of a wooded landscape.  It is great as a bird garden plant. These lovely branches are festooned with clusters of creamy white blooms in the late spring. The resulting berries are bluish black and ripen in late summer, providing welcome nourishment to a variety of songbirds.  Come fall, the leaves will turn a striking yellow to burgundy.

The popularity of this showy ornamental has been enhanced by the development of a number of great cultivars. You might check your local nursery this spring for such attractive varieties as “Pistachio”, “French Vanilla”, “Gold Bullion” or “Big Chocolate Chip”. Whichever you choose, keep it well-watered and mulched that first year and you’ll soon have a great addition to your landscape!

Photo credits: Morton Arboretum (1), University of Minnesota Extension (2)

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