On Gardening: Empress of China dogwood performs like a native Southerner

June 22, 2015

The Empress of China white bracts will give way to an edible strawberry-like fruit that has been described as having the texture of a persimmon. Of course, the fruit is also relished by birds

There is nothing quite like the mid-June bloom of the dogwoods in the Deep South. As strange as that sounds, consider dogwoods partnered with hydrangeas, and dogwoods blooming in sequence with mimosas and crape myrtles. Thanks to the incredible Empress of China dogwood, it is all possible.

Empress of China is known botanically as Cornus ellipitica, though often seen in the trade as Cornus angustata, is native to China, Korea and Japan. It is cold hardy in zones 6-9 and is evergreen, reaching 15 to 18 feet tall and 15 feet wide. In the colder regions the tree will be semi-evergreen. As with many other trees and shrubs, once new growth emerges in the spring, older leaves are sloughed off.

You might think that an evergreen dogwood could not produce enough flower power to overcome the leaves and be showy but this is simply not the case. From close-up to viewing from a distance there is a mass of glistening white bracts. Empress of China blooms will eventually give way to red fruit. The strawberry like fruit is edible with some equating the texture to a ripe persimmon. Like other dogwoods however the fruit is relished by feeding birds.

While it is still not the staple of the garden center, things have changed dramatically. Empress of China is found in the Southern Living Plant Collection and was also selected as a 2015 Georgia Gold Medal Winner. Once you do locate yours, plant it in a well-drained bed with similar acidity pH needed for azaleas and rhododendrons.  

As dogwoods hate wet feet it really makes sense to prepare a fertile plant bed. It will be most cruel to see gardeners simply stick this new dogwood in the middle of a full sun yard of tight clay and encroaching turf. This most likely will result in a negative opinion of a great tree.

The Empress of China dogwood is a perfect size for the smaller urban landscape. They perform best in a morning sun-afternoon shade location. We have ours planted on the east side of tall pines which gives it adequate protection from the scorching afternoon sun.

The choices of companion in the landscape are unlimited. By choosing Satsuki azaleas that bloom in May or early June you can create a landscape that rivals the spring look. There are scores of varieties, but over the years I have grown and admired Amaghasa, Higasa and Wakaebeisu. The Encore group of azaleas would also make great partners. Then as I mentioned above, hydrangeas and well-place crape myrtles have real possibilities.

From the standpoint of texture and lush garden surroundings, consider the giant leopard plant (Farfugium japonica Giganteum) with the enormous glossy round to kidney-shaped leaves, hostas and ferns of all sorts.

While I will always treasure the native dogwood, Cornus florida, the threat of the disease called anthracnose steals the joy. So far, Empress of China is showing good resistance, allowing us to revel in the beauty of the glorious white bracts. Talk to your garden center about Empress of China; you feel like royalty.



Associated Press