Flowering Dogwood

Flowering dogwoods are a common spring-flowering tree in Kentucky and much of the eastern U.S. However, the flowers of this familiar tree are not what we think. The white “petals” are actually modified leaves surrounding a group of small, greenish-yellow flowers. Photo credit: James St. John, cc-by 2.0

The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a small tree or tall shrub native to much of the eastern U.S. It is probably the most familiar of our native dogwoods and is the one that most people are referring to when they say “dogwood.” In addition to growing wild in our woods, the flowering dogwood is also popular in the horticulture trade and several varieties have been developed.

Flowering dogwoods serve an important role in our forest ecosystem. These common trees bloom in the spring, typically in April in Kentucky. Dogwood flowers are interesting because they aren’t what we think they are. The flowers are the individual, small, greenish-yellow bumps in the middle of what we think of as the “flower.” The large, white “petals” aren’t petals at all. Instead they are modified leaves called bracts. (The red “petals” on poinsettias are the same thing.)

Several insects including honey bees, sweat bees, andrenid bees, a few species of beetles, and even a couple of fly species visit dogwood flowers. While butterflies and moths don’t typically feed on dogwood flowers, several species including the spring azure butterfly (Celastrina ladon) and the cecropia silkmoth (Hyalophora cecropia) rely on dogwood leaves to feed their caterpillars.

The pollinated flowers produce bright red fruit. (We often refer to the fruits as dogwood berries but technically they are drupes, not berries because the outer skin is hard instead of soft.) The fruit is an important source of food for many different species of songbirds. Turkeys and other larger birds will also eat the fruit that falls to the ground or is within reach. In addition, many mammal species such as squirrels, mice, fox, and skunks will eat the fruit.

This article was part of Shannon’s original Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife blog which evolved into the blog for Backyard Ecology.

Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.

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