Flowering Dogwood

~ Plant Highlight ~


Flowering dogwoods are a common spring-flowering tree in Kentucky and much of the eastern U.S. However, the flowers of this familiar tree are not what we think. The white “petals” are actually modified leaves surrounding a group of small, greenish-yellow flowers. Photo credit: James St. John, cc-by 2.0 

The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a small tree or tall shrub native to much of the eastern U.S. It is probably the most familiar of our native dogwoods and is the one that most people are referring to when they say “dogwood.” In addition to growing wild in our woods, the flowering dogwood is also popular in the horticulture trade and several varieties have been developed.

Flowering dogwoods serve an important role in our forest ecosystem. These common trees bloom in the spring, typically in April in Kentucky. Dogwood flowers are interesting because they aren’t what we think they are. The flowers are the individual, small, greenish-yellow bumps in the middle of what we think of as the “flower.” The large, white “petals” aren’t petals at all. Instead they are modified leaves called bracts. (The red “petals” on poinsettias are the same thing.)

Several insects including honey bees, sweat bees, andrenid bees, a few species of beetles, and even a couple of fly species visit dogwood flowers. While butterflies and moths don’t typically feed on dogwood flowers, several species including the spring azure butterfly (Celastrina ladon) and the cecropia silkmoth (Hyalophora cecropia) rely on dogwood leaves to feed their caterpillars.

The pollinated flowers produce bright red fruit. (We often refer to the fruits as dogwood berries but technically they are drupes, not berries because the outer skin is hard instead of soft.) The fruit is an important source of food for many different species of songbirds. Turkeys and other larger birds will also eat the fruit that falls to the ground or is within reach. In addition, many mammal species such as squirrels, mice, fox, and skunks will eat the fruit.



Shannon Trimboli is a beekeeper, farmer, wildlife biologist, and author. She owns Grassy Roads Farm and Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting. Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting specializes in plants and habitat consulting services for honey bees, native pollinators, and wildlife conservation. She is the author of Plants Honey Bees Use in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys. Shannon also writes a blog about Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife and a farm and nursery blog that features stories of life on the farm, tips for attracting pollinators and wildlife, and highlights of different plants for pollinators and wildlife.

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