Out My Backdoor: For Beauty and Wildlife Food, Dogwoods Deliver

By Terry W. Johnson

As I write this column, the leaves of the flowering dogwoods growing in my backyard are bathed with a blush of red. Soon, however, they will turn scarlet and, together with their already bright red berries, light up the autumn landscape. If the flowering dogwood's breathtaking beauty is not enough to endear this small native tree to us, perhaps the fact that it is also one of our most valuable wildlife food plants will.

We will probably never know for certain where the dogwood got its name. One legend tells us this tree is called dogwood because long ago a medicine concocted from its bark was used to treat dogs plagued with mange. Others suggest the name dogwood is a derivation of the word "daggerwood." Daggerwood sticks were once sharpened and used to skewer meat for cooking.

The flowering dogwood ranges across all of Georgia's 159 counties. In the wild, it is typically found in the understory of forest. In other words, it lives beneath the canopy of much taller trees. Here it exists in a wide range of soil types and light conditions. While the tree will grow in open sun, it prefers partial shade. Although it will even grow in heavy shade, there it will rarely bloom. As for soil, flowering dogwoods do best in rich, well-drained, acid soils.

This native tree is small. A really big dogwood tops out at 20-30 feet tall. However, most dogwoods are much shorter.

In the wild, the dogwood is a tree that seems to melt into the landscape in both the summer and winter. However, during spring and fall, it takes center stage, seemingly demanding you to gaze upon it.

One color best describes the flowering dogwood in the fall -- red. The tree's autumn foliage ranges from maroon to crimson. Additionally, at this time of the year, the plant is festooned with clusters of half-inch, shiny, bright-red berries that botanists call drupes.

Once the berries and leaves disappear in late fall or early winter, the tree seems to slip back into obscurity only to re-emerge in the spring. In fact, many will argue that the flowering dogwood is more beautiful in spring than fall.

In spring, before their leaves emerge, the trees are blanketed with what appear to be creamy white blossoms. However, botanists will tell you that what we perceive to be white petals are actually not petals at all. The flowering dogwoods flowers are small and arranged in a tight cluster in the center of showy petal-like bracts. At any rate, the floral show displayed by the flowering dogwood is second to none.

When flowering dogwoods are in bloom, you can ride down a forest-lined road and pick them out in the leafless woodlands. If you start looking for dogwoods in full bloom, you will probably be surprised to find so many growing in your neck of the woods.

Once the blossoms are replaced by tender green leaves, these demure trees once again melt into the landscape.

One thing that I like about this tree is that it is also an important wildlife food plant. Wildlife of some sort dines on everything from the tree's wood and foliage to its fruit. It is the host plant for the beautiful spring azure butterfly and at least 22 species of moths, including those bearing unusual names such as the saddled prominent and filament bearer. While the caterpillars of these moths and butterflies munch on the tree's leaves, a multitude of songbirds converge on the trees to dine on the juicy caterpillars growing fat on the trees foliage.

Meanwhile, more than 60 species of birds and mammals also feed on dogwoods. White-tailed deer eat the tree's foliage and twigs. Raccoons, black bears, eastern chipmunks as well as both fox and gray squirrels gobble up the tree's bright red fruit. The eastern cottontail and beaver also find the dogwood to their liking.

Each fall, wood ducks, quail and wild turkeys vie for dogwood berries scattered across the forest floor. Additionally, more than 30 other species of birds eat dogwood drupes. This lengthy list includes woodpeckers (red-bellied, hairy, pileated, red-headed) along with the northern flicker and yellow-bellied sapsucker. Our state bird, the brown thrasher, also relishes dogwood fruit.  The red berries are also choice table fare for northern cardinals, yellow-rumped warblers, northern mockingbirds, thrushes (hermit, wood, Swainson's and gray-cheeked), and the eastern bluebird and American robin.

Sadly, although the value of this tree is undisputed, its future is uncertain. A deadly anthracnose fungus has killed thousands of dogwoods in recent years. The disease has been especially devastating in North Georgia. Consequently, I would not recommend transplanting a dogwood from the wild into your yard as it may be infected with the anthracnose fungus. Instead, buy disease-free trees from a reputable nursery.

Flowering dogwoods are great additions to both urban and suburban yards. You can line the edge of your yard or driveway with them. They can be set out as specimen trees or scattered among widely-spaced taller trees.

Regardless of where you plant them, they will add beauty to your home landscape and provide a dependable source of food for your hungry wildlife neighbors. From my way of thinking, that's a pretty good deal.

Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a noted backyard wildlife writer and expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group for Wildlife Resources' Nongame Conservation Section. Read previous columns here. Find out more about TERN at http://tern.homestead.com/ .