Kousa Dogwood Welcomes Summer


R. Wayne Mezitt

The elegant sweeps of the native white-flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) welcoming the first warm days in early May is one of my favorite sights. This can be an all too fleeting experience, abbreviated in some seasons by inclement weather. However, within the last several decades, an Oriental version of our native beauty, the Kousa Dogwood (C. kousa) has become more widely available, significantly broadening the landscape value of the dogwood and extending its season of bloom well into June. And because very few trees display their flowers in late spring, the kousa dogwood adds another dimension to the New England garden.

The kousa dogwood comes from
China, Japan and Korea, and seems to resist some of the problems affecting our native dogwood. Upright and vase-shaped young plants develop into rounded mature trees typically 30 feet high and wide, with horizontal, layered branches that mimic its native counterpart in landscape effect. Vigorous and winter hardy to USDA Zone 6 or colder, established trees are tolerant of drier soils, seashore conditions, and are somewhat resistant to deer browsing. It is easily transplanted, can be grown as a tree with a single trunk or a multi-stemmed large shrub, and has proven adaptable in most any New England landscape.

Most kousa dogwoods offered for sale are grown from seed, resulting in each plant being an individual with its own characteristics. Typical flowers appear ivory-white on upright stalks in early June, open to pure white and persist for 2-3 weeks. As with other types of dogwood, the true flowers of the kousa are inconspicuous and yellowish, surrounded by showy bracts we term “flowers”. And they can be truly spectacular! Named cultivars are now available offering tremendous variation in floral display: large flowering types (‘Moon Beam’), pink forms (‘Heart Throb’, ‘Satomi’), double-bracted (‘Doubloons’), narrow and pointed (‘Milky Way’), overlapping and broad (‘Par Four’, ‘Fairway’) are some. A few cultivars like ‘Endurance’ and ‘Summer Stars’ tend to retain their bracts all summer, even as their fruit begins to change color.

Growth habits vary too, ranging from narrow and upright types (‘Fanfare’) suited to constricted areas to wide branching and weeping forms (‘Lustgarten Weeping’, ‘Weaver’s Weeping’) that afford creative design opportunities. Some cultivars are slower growing (‘Girard’s Dwarf’, ‘Dwarf Pink’, ‘Snow Boy’) and well suited for smaller gardens. Foliage can range from normal dark green to white-variegated (‘Summer Games’, ‘Wolf Eye’, ‘Angela Palmer’) and yellow-variegated (‘Bonfire’, ‘Gold Star’), and others, each imparting its own special effect. One Weston Nurseries introduction, ‘Ed Mezitt’, opens the spring with purplish young growth which becomes normally green in summer, and its wide flower bracts overlap each other for a profuse floral display. More variations appear on the market each year.

Perhaps most appealing is the multi-season value of kousa dogwood, and these features helped qualify it for the Cary Award in 2002. The long and pointed dark green leaves gradually change to bright red-purple and scarlet during October, generally lasting well into November. Starting in September, a profusion of large, round, inch-size raspberry-like fruit start to color, changing from green to yellow and finally to scarlet red and orange before dropping. These are well favored by birds, and even considered a delicacy in Eastern culture. The bark on older trunks and branches exfoliates in mottled layers of tan, gray, green and yellow, each graceful branch creating beautiful contrasts against the snow and a background of evergreens in winter. Few landscape plant offer as many features for each season.

This June, take a look around your neighborhood and you’ll probably be surprised to see how kousa dogwood has begun to appear in the landscape. Many of the newer forms are still rare and difficult to find outside of collectors’ gardens. One way to see them is to visit public gardens like
Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston and Elm Bank in Wellesley. Many specialty nurseries also carry a range of choices, and some show them in display plantings. For information a number of books such as Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody landscape Plants offer helpful descriptions and details. Mail order nurseries and the internet also offer lots of options. Whatever your landscape design, a kousa dogwood will likely prove perfect for your yard and provide years of year-round enjoyment for your family.

R. Wayne Mezitt is the chairman of Weston Nurseries of Hopkinton, MA and a Massachusetts Certified Horticulturist. He has served as president of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association, the New England Nursery Association, and the American Nursery and Landscape Association, based in Washington, DC.

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