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Dogwoods: Underappreciated and underutilized

The creamy flower clusters and abundant white berries are distinctive, but its burgundy autumn color is a standout in an evergreen landscape.

Note: In celebration of central Texas’ tree-planting season from October to February, this occasional series will highlight a few favorite trees for cultivating more shade in the residential landscape.

Humble and a bit rotund, with zigzag-patterned leaves, dogwood is one of those Charlie Brown-like plants with friendly everyman qualities that endear it to gardeners and landscapers alike. Besides being easy to grow, tough and resilient, it’s instantly recognizable with great fall color.

It’s hard not to get interested in a plant that houses man’s best friend in its name. Turns out the common name dogwood is actually an Old English reference to “dagger wood” — an ancient use for which this species’ hard wood made a natural fit.

Back when I worked on the East Coast, classic species like flowering dogwood and red osier dogwood book-ended the landscape calendar, with endearing Snoopy-eared flowers in spring and traffic-stopping red color in fall. (Even the branches were colored red!)

In the San Antonio area, the native dogwood species roughleaf dogwood (Cornus drummondii) has to get by without as much water as its relatives from wetter climates. Growing as a large shrub or small tree in deep soils, woodland edges and creekways, dogwood is as fast-growing as hackberry, but much better behaved. And it fits amicably into smaller spaces around bigger trees. (Hint: It’s a perfect specimen for that 8-foot strip between your water meter and the house, where planting bigger trees can be a danger to the underground service line.)

Its creamy flower clusters and abundant white berries are distinctive, but underappreciated is its burgundy autumn color — the sort of purply-grey that makes a nice contrast with other plants’ chlorophyll green. It’s a brief show before dogwood drops its leaves for winter.

But on a recent cold Saturday along the Riverwalk’s Museum Reach, dogwood showed off its team spirit to great effect. It was proudly showcased as a specimen tree in some spots, sheared flat like a boxwood in others, and filling in the background with miniature purple thickets around the San Antonio Museum of Art.

As a Texas native, dogwood isn’t a blockhead or wishy-washy like a lot of introduced, invasive or over-watered plants. And having plants that can endure local weather extremes without an “AAUGH!” is the kind of security blanket we could all use more of in the home landscape.

Brad Wier
Brad Wier
Brad Wier is a SAWS conservation planner. Years in South Texas landscaping and public horticulture gave him a lasting enthusiasm for native plants that don’t die when sprinklers -- and gardeners -- break down. He’d rather save time and water for kayaking and tubing. He is a former kilt model, and hears hummingbirds.
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