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Native Trees: Pagoda Dogwood

An understory tree to love!

Usually, I write about my experience with native plants. As a self taught gardener, that's all I have. But this pagoda dogwood -- I just can't wait to share it! With six months of growing experience under my belt, here it is.

Pagoda dogwoods (Cornus alternifolia) are small trees that grow in part shade and can take partial sun. Much like the iconic flowering dogwood, pagoda dogwoods grow 15 to 30 feet high. This type of dogwood tree prefers cool and acidic soils. Mt. Cuba says pagoda dogwoods are "adaptable" to different soil and moisture conditions so I am giving it a try. Our garden is mostly clay soils. We have a flowering dogwood which is growing just fine and those too prefer acidic soils. That's a promising sign.

The key difference between pagoda dogwoods and the more common native flowering dogwood (Benthamidia Florida, previously Cornus Florida) is the branching structure. The flowering dogwood has a rounder shape. Pagoda dogwoods have a more lateral structure and branches are spaced irregularly giving that extra measure of charm. Pagodas are sometimes called "alternate leaf" dogwoods for that very reason.

Another key difference between the two native dogwoods is the flower. Pagoda dogwoods have very small white flowers in a flat cluster. Both bloom in spring - typically April for us.

The spring progression is a pretty sight and once those buds opened, they were covered with pollinators.

In fall, pagodas really do their thing. Those flat clustered flowers turn into tiny tiaras of blue berries on coral red stems. The coral red stems remain even after birds have eaten the berries.

I planted a very small tree, about three feet high, in the fall and a second slightly larger, young tree this spring. The young tree isn't really showing that lateral branching structure at the moment because it was grown in a field nursery. You can see the branches have been pruned into a more traditional vase shape. As the tree grows, it will likely develop more laterally. This straight species tree came from Merrifield Garden Center. When I could not find the second pagoda dogwood I was looking for, Merrifield offered to order one and kept in touch with their progress over the winter.

By mid-spring they called to say six trees had arrived. I chose the smallest as there is a bunch of research showing smaller trees get established more quickly. When trees are field grown at nurseries, they have to be "root cut" to move the tree. That root cutting sets the tree's growth back a fair pace. The smaller the tree, the less root cutting involved. The folks at Merrifield couldn't have been better to work with. I share that to say, particularly with trees, if you can't find the specific tree you are looking for, many garden centers will order a specific tree for you.

That said, my first choice is always a native plant nursery. I did find the smaller pagoda at a native plant nursery and there were several advantages. It was locally grown and smaller, both boding well for a very healthy plant. Significantly, it also had the more natural shape typical of pagoda dogwoods.

If you are looking for a pagoda dogwood now, Unity Church Hill Nursery is carrying a cultivar of pagoda dogwood, Nature by Design has a straight species tree on their inventory list and Direct Natives has pagoda dogwoods available by mail.

Pagodas, yet another dogwood to love!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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