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What is a Pacific Dogwood?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2016
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The Pacific dogwood is a small to medium sized deciduous tree native to northwestern North America. The provincial flower of British Columbia, Pacific dogwoods are known for their simple, elegant beauty. Growing the Pacific dogwood can be somewhat difficult, as the tree is quite susceptible to certain diseases.

Cornus nuttallii is named for one of history's greatest botanists, the British-born Thomas Nuttall. Encouraged to pursue his love of America's flora and fauna, Nuttall spent much of his career traveling the vast wilderness of early 19th century America, chronicling thousands of bird, tree, and plant species. He was the first to realize that the pacific Dogwood was a distinct species, separate from its eastern cousin Cornus florida. The tree was later renamed in Nuttall's honor by longtime friend John James Audubon.

A slim and delicate tree, Pacific dogwoods are marked most of the year by their dark green, oval leaves. Slightly ridged, the leaves turn a delicate pink-yellow color in fall. In spring, the tree puts forth a profuse bloom of delicate flowers. The flower of the Pacific dogwood is actually only the central green and white nub of the bloom; what appear to be four or five white petals are actually bracts. In some areas, the bloom will repeat in the early fall, but most Pacific dogwoods bloom only once a year. The tree also produces red berries, which are not poisonous but generally not very tasty.

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A somewhat versatile tree, the Pacific dogwood needs soil that remains constantly moist but excellent drainage. The tree may prefer dappled sun, but grows adequately in full sun or partial shade conditions as well. As long as soil is kept moist, the tree needs little additional fertilization and usually does not require much pruning. They are intolerant to drought and prefer mild winters.

Dogwoods are heavily threatened by a fungal disease known as dogwood anthracnose. Introduced from an unknown source sometime in the mid-20th century, anthracnose has harmed or destroyed a large proportion of the wild dogwood population throughout the United States and Canada. The most common sign of an anthracnose infection is the appearance of tan blotches on leaves; trees may die within a few years of the first appearance. Fungicides can help manage the disease, but are not always successful.

Dogwoods grow in pockets throughout many US states, including California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. The species is greatly beloved in British Columbia, where it had protected status for many years. It is possible to grow the Pacific dogwood in other areas, as long as drought is avoided and proper care guidelines are followed.

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