Beauty and so much more

Most people have one plant that symbolizes spring for them. Maybe daffodils come to mind when the winter longing for warm weather is at its worst. Or irises. For me it's dogwood trees. I like to remember them dotted along roadsides and in the woods of my native Virginia, where the dogwood is the state tree.

From the mid-South to Boston and in the Pacific Northwest, entire neighborhoods are transformed by masses of dogwoods, which give the impression of puffy cumulus clouds come down to Earth.

But dogwoods, like all outstanding plants, have more to offer than just their spring beauty.In fact, their advantages are numerous. Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and Pacific dogwood (C. nuttallii) are native to the US and so fit nicely into naturalized landscapes, where the bright red berries provide food for small wildlife.

Because of their small to medium size - usually about 25 feet high - they're ideal for today's smaller yards. Called understory trees - meaning they happily reside beneath towering oaks, maples, and sweet gums - dogwoods are a solution to the shade "problem" that many gardeners contend with.

If that weren't enough, dogwood trees call attention to themselves once again in autumn as the leaves turn blazing red or deep maroon. That places them squarely in that much-desired category that garden designers always emphasize - plants that provide four seasons of interest.

The news about America's dogwoods isn't all good, though. In the 1980s, dogwood anthracnose decimated many woodland dogwoods (C. florida in the East and C. nuttallii in the West).

In susceptible areas, many gardeners turn to kousa dogwoods, originally from Japan, which usually aren't affected by the disease. Others practice preventive measures - no overhead watering or fertilizing, and cleaning up fallen leaves from around the tree in fall.

The University of Tennessee is also working on developing new cultivars of flowering dogwood that are anthracnose-resistant. Appalachian Spring is an outstanding one.

But the biggest enemy of a dogwood tree, note Paul Cappiello and Don Shadow in their interesting and informative new book, "Dogwoods" (Timber Press, $39.95) is "the two-legged, Briggs-and-Stratton-wielding weekend landscape warrior." In other words, someone with a lawn mower or string trimmer working too closely to the tree and nicking the bark, allowing borers to enter.

Surely a tree that Messrs. Cappiello and Shadow call one of "our greatest national treasures" deserves better.

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