Pacific dogwood species profile

29 Mar

People often ask me what my favorite tree is. It’s tough to say, but if I had to name a favorite genus, it would be Cornus — the dogwoods. I am not alone in loving these trees; they are grown far and wide as ornamentals. They are cosmopolitan, meaning they are found all over the world in similar climate bands. Oregon has two native species, one shrub and one tree. This profile will focus on the tree, which is Cornus nuttallii, or Pacific dogwood.

This species is small, generally staying under 25 meters in height. It is also a bit of a fragile beauty, as it is very susceptible to dogwood anthracnose; this disease is caused by the fungus Discula destructiva. It has killed many older trees in the wild and makes this particular species less favorable as an ornamental tree.

Coming across one of these trees in the woods is a fabulous experience, especially in spring when it’s in bloom. It just doesn’t seem to belong there with the other native trees. Because it prefers sun, I’ve often found it standing in openings in the surrounding canopy with rays of light shining down on it as if it were in a display case. It borders on the absurd!

Pacific dogwood can be identified based upon several characteristics. It has opposite branching (1), which helps set it apart right away, and also has internodal dipping (2). This means that between nodes — the points where branching and budding occurs — the twigs have a distinct dip. The leaves also have arcuate veins (3) that curve dramatically toward the margin of the leaf. If you are lucky enough to see it in bloom, you can pick it out by its showy white bracts (4) which look like flowers. If you look closely, the inconspicuous flowers (5) are clumped in the center of these bracts. In summer, they turn to clusters of one- or two-seeded berry-like red drupes (6). These are technically edible, though not particularly flavorful. Even in winter, this tree can be readily identified by the dipping, opposite branches, and the distinctive shape of the buds (7).

Historically, native people had a range of uses for the various parts of this tree: making dye from the bark, baskets from the branches, and tool handles, hooks, bows and arrows from the close-grained wood. It is also a relatively important browse for large game, particularly mule deer. Band-tailed pigeons and pileated woodpeckers also find the fruits attractive.

To find this tree in bloom out in the woods, try looking in older forests along streams. If you do manage to find one, you’ll be glad you made the effort.

4 Responses to “Pacific dogwood species profile”

  1. midwestnaturalist March 30, 2012 at 5:44 am #

    I had no idea that its “flowers” are actually bracts. I’ve also noticed that the wood it extremely hard. Probably one of the hardest woods I’ve encountered.

    • xylem_up March 30, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

      I suppose it’s pretty easy not to notice; I haven’t taken out my loupe, but I think the actual flowers may be apetiolate. Explains why it’s so tough to tell what’s what!

  2. rainyleaf June 18, 2012 at 7:00 am #

    Thanks for this interesting post! I saw a Cornus florida ‘rubra’ that I fell in love with this spring….I don’t think my life will ever be the same!

    • xylem_up June 18, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

      That is definitely one of my favorite trees — maybe even the favorite!

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