Down the Garden Path: Whistling for dogwoods

Pagoda dogwood

Are you looking for a small tree to plant this fall? Do you prefer a native understory plant to accompany a large tree? Would you like something a little unusual, but readily available, and with multiple seasons of interest that is often grown for its striking ornamental value? Look no further than the Pagoda Dogwood.

Pagoda dogwood

Cornus alternifolia is more commonly known as pagoda dogwood or alternate-leaf dogwood because its branches form tiers, or a conical shape. Branches grow parallel to the ground in layers for an elegant, beautiful look. It’s a great fit for our area. I have grown it, and it’s a knockout. Unlike Cornus florida, the flowering dogwood, it is a strong grower in our area. While lovely, flowering dogwood tends to die out in our area after a few years and can be expensive.

Where to plant them

Pagoda dogwood is a beautiful flowering tree and Midwest native plant that can be grown as a large shrub or a small tree. It is unusual in that it grows in full sun or can be used as an understory plant. It is hardy in zones 3 to 9, and its native range is eastern North America. It requires medium water, but I find that this is true only if you grow it in full sun, as I did in Lake County. They will tolerate dry conditions and additional water is unnecessary after establishment of the plant (about 2 to 3 years, or during periods of extreme drought).

Pagoda dogwoods grow anywhere from 15 to 25 feet, with a 20- to 30-foot spread. It’s amenable to pruning to control its size. The maintenance is extremely low.

More benefits

The flowers are fragrant and quite beautiful. It attracts birds and butterflies, has lovely blue berries and as a bonus, is black walnut tolerant.

If you’re interested in supporting local pollinators, pagoda dogwood is a host plant for spring and summer azure butterflies. Many fruit-eating birds will enjoy the berries,

However, while young, it may be a good idea to protect the trunk with a cage, as it also will feed deer and rabbits.

Another fantastic feature of this shrub is its attractiveness all year long. The bloom time is May to June, but the leaves are quite beautiful and the fall color is handsome. The white flowers appear to have flat tops, and the berries appear on reddish stems. In the fall, the leaves turn an interesting shade of red. One of its great qualities is that the shape is so ornamental that it is attractive when bare in the winter. The bark is greenish with a bit of brown, and becomes more furrowed, in a very attractive way, as the shrub ages.

Fall is a great time to plant trees and shrubs, so if you’re considering adding new plants before winter, Cornus alternifolia is a great choice for many conditions.

For more information on native plants, visit or Also, check out the University of Illinois Extension Horticulture YouTube Channel for videos on other horticulture topics.

Have a question for the Master Gardeners? Residents can contact the Kendall County Master Gardener volunteers on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. by calling 630-553-5823, stopping in at 7775B Route 47, Yorkville, or emailing For helpful hints on what to include in your email, please visit