What Is It Wednesday: Eastern Flowering Dogwood

Name: Eastern Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Eastern Flowering Dogwood is a native understory tree that grows to be 3-10 m tall. In Ontario, this tree can be found in the Carolinian Zone, the area that extends southwest from Toronto to Sarnia and down to Lake Erie. Its flowers bloom in mid-spring before its oval leaves have had a chance to unfurl. As these trees mature, the bark is often referred to as alligator skin due to its brownish-grey colour and scale-like texture. The tree produces bright red berries in late summer, which are poisonous to humans, but provide a tasty food source for many birds and small mammals. 

(Photo Credit: Cathy Quinlan)

Quite deceivingly, the flowers of this tree are a yellowish-green and grow in clusters of 20-30. The large, white “petals” are actually bracts, a modified leaf that helps to attract pollinators to the tiny flowers. Eastern Flowering Dogwoods flowers are capable of self-pollination as each tree has both male and female parts, but cross-pollination with other individuals produces more favourable seed production.

This species is endangered both provincially and nationally (i.e. it can be found in the wild but is facing imminent extinction or extirpation). Like many species in Ontario, habitat loss and fragmentation has made it difficult for populations to establish and survive. Its greatest threat, though, is Dogwood Anthracnose, a fungus that damages its leaves and causes significant die off. It infects Eastern Flowering Dogwood through the twigs and leaves, initially causing leaf discolouration, which leads to holes in the leaves. Eventually, cankers develop on the branches and stem. The mortality rate of infected trees is between 25-75%. If you happen to come across an Eastern Flowering Dogwood in the wild, please submit your sighting to the Natural Heritage Information Centre (NHIC) and provide any photos or geographic locations you have available. 

Fun Fact: Historically, Eastern Flowering Dogwood has been used for a variety of purposes. The hardness and durability of its wood made it a suitable material for carving and making tools by Aboriginal peoples and it has been used in the manufacture of golf club heads and rolling pins.

(Photo Credit: Jane Bowles)