As we eagerly await spring and the showy “blossoms” of the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), many people may not realize that several other native dogwood species can be found in Connecticut’s woodlands, thickets, and wetlands. Though not as showy as the flowering dogwood, they all provide an abundance of late spring blossoms and summer fruit so important to insects and birds. It’s time to get to know and appreciate our lesser-known dogwoods.
Members of the dogwood family can be identified as such by their distinctive foliage: the primary veins on dogwood leaves radiate from the midrib in a curve toward the leaf tip. While the leaves of each species may differ in size and shape, their veins all form this same basic pattern. All of our local species have opposite leaves (leaves are paired opposite one another along the branch), except for the alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), which, as its name suggests, bears leaves that alternate along its stems.
Clusters of small green or white flowers form on the ends of the branches, but unlike those of the flowering dogwood, our other dogwoods’ flowers are not surrounded by large white or pink bracts. Most bear flat-topped flower clusters, except for the gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), which has loose cone-shaped clusters. Several species of native bees, wasps, butterflies, and beetles find dogwood blossoms irresistible. While the insects busily feed on nectar and pollen, they help to pollinate the plants, which can then produce fruit.
Most of these dogwoods are considered shrubs, varying in size from only three to ten feet tall. Again, the exception is the alternate-leaved, which can reach heights of twenty-five feet in its upland woodland habitat. While not gaining the height of their cousin, the red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) and gray dogwood will spread to form thickets. A welcomed sight in winter, the red osier’s striking red branches provide some much-needed color along a chilly stream or woodland swamp. The silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) also thrives in wet areas and bears blue berry-like clusters of fruits, while the red osier’s fruits are an opaque white. White fruit on red stalks identifies the gray dogwood along hedgerows and thickets; the alternate-leaved dogwood’s mature fruit is a deep purple on red stalks.
Whether red, white, blue, or purple, a dogwood’s fruit will provide an important food for local and migrating birds this summer and fall. Wood ducks, wild turkeys,northern flickers, eastern bluebirds, and northern cardinals are some of the colorful avian visitors attracted to dogwoods.
Submitted by Cindi Kobak