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Friday, May 19, 2006 - Page updated at 08:43 AM

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Plant Life

Stalwart Stunners

NATIVE DOGWOOD blossoms used to define spring in Northwest gardens. Pacific dogwoods (Cornus nuttallii) bloomed snowy white against the deep-green backdrop of firs and cedars in my big, woodsy childhood garden. In the years since, I've discovered other forms of dogwoods, from the ground-hugging bunchberry to the yellow haze of March-blooming Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas). But it's that open, cream-tinged-with-pink blossom of our native tree that remains the quintessential dogwood. They're the earliest-blooming and tallest of the dogwoods. Unfortunately, they've proven susceptible to anthracnose, a nasty fungus that curls and browns dogwood foliage. The fungus thrives in the shady conditions beneath large trees where the air doesn't circulate very well, resulting in the decline of so many of these magnificent natives.

So if you're looking for dogwoods, disease resistance should be the goal. And you have plenty of good choices. Many of the named varieties of Pacific dogwood stay healthier in typical garden situations than the straight species. C. nuttallii 'Colrigo Giant' from the Columbia River Gorge has large white flowers 6 to 8 inches across. The leaves of C. nuttallii 'Gold Spot' are splashed and mottled with golden yellow, and the flowers (which are really colored leaf bracts, like poinsettias) are star-shaped. Both of these variations on the native dogwood are vigorous trees, can take some shade, need watering, and have good fall color. Cornus 'Eddie's White Wonder' is especially showy, a cross between the Pacific and Eastern dogwoods, with bright-red autumn color and wide, flat white flowers. Despite its fabulous flowers, it can look like a gangly adolescent into maturity because it lacks the stately form of its parents.

For the most reliably healthy dogwoods, go with the magnificent clan of Cornus kousa, or one of the newer hybrids bred from them. These Asian trees have handsome, exfoliating bark, a naturally elegant shape, autumn fruit and pointy-tipped, star-shaped flowers. The sheer mass of bloom helps make up for their smaller size; in May the trees are smothered in soft pink or milky white. 'Wolf Eyes' is a shrubby, variegated version with flowers matching the pale edges of the leaves; the white flowers of C. kousa 'Gold Cup' are shown off by leaves centered in gold. 'Radiant Rose' has shell-pink flowers with an upward tilt that look as if each blossom is about to twirl off into space.

I have to admit to succumbing to one of the showy Cherokee dogwoods, lured by their small size and flashy foliage. These are focal-point trees that look best surrounded by plenty of green to tame their fireworks color schemes. C. florida 'Cherokee Chief' has rosy red flowers with red-tinged new growth. 'Cherokee Sunset' has deep-pink flowers and leaves margined in golden yellow. For a tiny garden, or to grow in a pot, C. florida 'Red Pygmy' is a true dwarf, staying under 3 feet for the first five years or so, and topping out at 7 feet after a decade. Despite the small scale of the tree, the dark-pink flowers are nearly normal size, creating quite a spectacle in late spring.

Eagerly awaited is one of the new dogwoods, bred at Rutgers University, called 'Starlight.' Its parents are the Asian and Pacific dogwoods, and as we would hope for our own children, it appears as if 'Starlight' has been blessed with the best attributes of each and the drawbacks of neither. The glossy green healthy foliage of C. kousa and the large, white open flowers of our native dogwood make it a stunner. In a year or so when 'Starlight' becomes more generally available, we'll learn if it's really the answer to anthracnose we dogwood worshippers have been hoping for.

In the meantime, you'll find practical advice for growing dogwoods as well as a mind-blowing variety of them in the dauntingly thorough book "Dogwoods" by Paul Cappiello and Don Shadow (Timber Press, $39.95).

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net. Julie Notarianni is a Seattle Times news artist.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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