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An Answer for Dying Dogwoods?

When we moved to our property in 1985, I was enchanted by its abundance of native dogwood trees, Cornus florida.Many of my dogwoods were mature specimens with thick trunks and widely spreading canopies. Each spring fluttering white blooms frosted the woods. Anticipation of the sight brought me eagerly through the winter, and when the dogwoods blossomed I knew spring was firmly entrenched.

However, recent years have hit my dogwoods badly. Dogwood anthracnose, dogwood borers, powdery mildew and drought stress have left dogwood skeletons standing forlornly throughout the eastern US. The drought we experienced last fall has been brutal on local dogwoods. Lou has cut a half dozen dead dogwoods from the property already this year, and recently I identified several more dead ones. 

When I looked out over the garden this week, I noticed a scattering of white blooms, a pale shadow of former glory. In past years this spring view was covered in dogwood blooms, where now only a sprinkling of dogwood blooms show. Lou wants to plant new dogwoods. At first I refused, thinking new ones would likely succumb to the same problems as the old ones. However, a local nursery owner pointed out that hybrids are much more resistant to disease and insects than Cornus florida. Many of these are hybrids of Cornus florida/Cornus kousa. The Kousa dogwood is native to Japan and China and is more disease and insect resistant. Kousa dogwood is a pretty tree but its blooms appear after the leaves have appeared, so lacks the impact of our native dogwood. The hybrids seem to have the best of both worlds. 

Dr. Elwin Orton of Rutgers University has spent about 40 years developing hybrid dogwoods. His Stellar series includes several sturdy varieties, including popular 'Stellar Pink' and the highly anthracnose resistant 'Appalachian Spring'. Dr. Orton also developed 'Hyperion', which is known for its rapid growth and vigor. 'Red Pygmy' is a dwarf red hybrid.

Other plant breeders are working on additional hybrid dogwoods to take the place of our dying ones. I planted a 'Stellar Pink' several years ago. It survived last year's drought, though bloom production is less this year. I told Lou I will look at more hybrids and make a selection to replace a few we lost. However, I don't think anyone has come up with a dogwood that can survive without water. So these will have to be planted in the garden where we can take good care of them.

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Reader Comments (14)

I'm so sorry to hear about the loss of your dogwoods! I've always admired the trees in that genus, although none of them grow here. I hope you're successful with the hybrids. The impact of prolonged drought is insidious. A combination of drought and pine bark beetles have similarly decimated pine trees here - I hear chainsaws running several times a week in my immediate area and pass dead trees with every trip into town. It's heartbreaking. I fear that many Californians are falsely reassured by the plentiful rain this winter; however, the truth is that we need many similar winters just to restore our groundwater and there's no guarantee that this year's rain isn't just a one-off event. I continue to conserve and I collect rainwater on-site - if only I had a spot for a cistern to capture more!

March 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKris P

So sad to lose that many trees at once.

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDenise

With climate change many of us need to reassess our choices of trees and other plants. I think you are wise to think you may need to choose something other than your beloved Dogwoods. Cornus mas is native to the Mediterranean but the flowers in bring are not as pretty as the large white blooms on your trees.

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

So sad when a native tree is attacked, I really hope that you can find a hybrid which will replace your lost trees. Insects from other continents can wreak havoc in a short space of time, we must all be more vigilant. I hope you have some serious rain soon, seems a strange wish, but you know what I mean.

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPauline

I am sorry your Dogwoods are sick, I am crossing my fingers for you that the hybrids will be successful. The Cardinal in midst of Dogwood flowers sure is a beautiful picture.

March 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGone Tropical

How about Cornus amomum (silky dogwood) or - if you can find it - C. drummondii (roughleaf dogwood)? Both native to your area (http://bonap.net/NAPA/TaxonMaps/Genus/County/Cornus) and both (I believe) supposed to be much tougher and more drought-tolerant than C. florida.

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Hi Deb, just want to let you know that I have answered your question about David Austin roses for hot humid climates on my blog!
OOOoooh, how sad that the dogwoods are dying, I had no idea about this. I love these trees! But at least it is good news that there are more disease and insect resistant hybrids out there. I am glad that you are considering those to replace dogwoods that have died on your property.
That doesn't solve the drought problem that you are having, but as you said if you plant them where you can water them they will survive. I know by own experience how devasting drought is and really sympathize with you. Hopefully, conditions will change in your neck of the wood as they have in California. At least for now!
Warm regards,

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

Always so disappointing to lose cherished plants and trees. Hope your new choice of dogwood survives the pests and drought.

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAlistair

Very sad about the dogwood anthracnose. I've tried to grow C. florida here but they are only marginally hardy and it did not survive. Good luck with the new hybrids!

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Oh, it's always sad to lose a tree. My first thought was that maybe the trees are simply reaching the ends of their lives. And the conditions you mention can be hard on an older tree. It sounds like you're giving the challenge plenty of thought. I'm sure you'll come up with an amazing landscape plan. :)

March 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBeth @ PlantPostings

Heartbreaking. Choose a mix of pink and white hybrids -- it would be beautiful.

I love the Cherokeee Brave! We had to cut down all our dying dogwoods (about 5 of them) a few years ago and I have been longing to replace them! I'm currently in the process of transforming our backyard into a garden oasis and I keep telling my husband about how awesome your gardens are. He built me two frames for some swings I have and I'm planning on putting some climbing roses around then! I love checking out your blog! We miss you at work!

April 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJan Reaves

I didn't realize that native dogwoods were suffering from disease outbreaks. When I lived in Connecticut, the front of our property was full of wild Cornus florida; and when I lived in Gettysburg, they blended with blooming redbuds in the woods around the battlefield in spring. It's good to know there are disease-resistant cultivars to help fill the gap.

April 5, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJean

So sad to lose much loved trees.
Appalachian spring sounds good.

April 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDiana Studer

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