A true California native beauty is the Pacific, or Mountain Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii). The dogwood display begins in the spring with exotic-looking blooms, continues into late summer, with the development of startling cluster fruits, then ends in autumn with a finale of branches filled with crimson leaves. Some of the best places to experience dogwoods are here in Tuolumne County along streams and ditch trails, as well as on the shadier sides of the mountains below 5000 ft.
Dogwoods thrive in niches of the Sierra Nevada, as they prefer hot summers and cold winters, and grow well with moderate amounts of rainfall and snowmelt. They need partial shade to protect their thin bark from the sun. Dogwoods are often seen growing under the canopy of larger trees in our mixed coniferous forests or surrounded by an understory of native shrubs.
The eye-catching flowers bloom sometime between April and June depending on elevation and conditions. The white showy petal-like structures are actually modified leaves called bracts. The bracts surround a greenish-white center that contains 30-40 small true flowers. The flowers eventually develop into a type of fruit called a drupe by late summer. Each drupe is bright red to reddish-orange in color. The flowers are resplendent against the deep green background of the leaves once the tree sprouts new leaves in the spring. With autumn, the leaves steal the show with changes in color ranging from yellowish pink to crimson red.
The Pacific Dogwood is beneficial in attracting pollinating insects, including butterfly caterpillars. Its drupes also attract a variety of songbirds. As a California native, it is drought tolerant and fairly resistant to fire.
If you think that you would like to make a home for this native beauty in your garden, realize that new dogwood plants require extra care for a few years but the extra effort is worth it. They require well-drained, preferably acidic soil that is high in inorganic material. Young trees should be planted among shrubs or under taller trees so that the vulnerable trunk is at least partially shaded. Protect young trees from deer that will browse the tender twigs. Mature trees are not a food source due to their foul-tasting tannins.
Once dogwoods become established, they don’t need extra summer water or fertilizer. They also do not like to be pruned; the open wounds heal slowly. If you need to remove damaged branches, it is best to do so in late summer. Watch your dogwood trees for disease. The tender bark makes the tree vulnerable to attack by insects. They are susceptible to anthracnose, a disease caused by the fungus Discula destructive that causes leaves to spot or fall off.
Whether on a walk in the woods or peeking out your garden window, take some time during the coming spring to enjoy the splendor of the Pacific Dogwood. Watch its transforming beauty through the summer and autumn until it leaves fall once more for the coming winter.
Kathi Joye is a former University of California Master Gardener of Tuolumne County who lives among the dogwoods at 4,000 feet.