In late winter, we tend to get overly anxious about waiting on spring. Blooming plants show us that spring is on the way. Some great plants for early spring bloom include many bulbs such as snowdrops, crocus, tulips, and daffodils. There are some great shrubs for early spring color as well. Spring blooming shrubs includes forsythia, lilac, and viburnums, but the earliest blooming shrub for Nebraska might possibly be the Cornelian cherry dogwood.
Cornelian cherry dogwood, Cornus mas, is a small tree or large shrub that grows up to 20-25 feet tall and 15-20 feet wide. It can be trimmed up from the ground level to make it look more like a tree or left alone to grow like a shrub. Blooming with tiny, star-shaped, yellow flowers in late February or early March makes this plant very desirable for most any landscape. These small flowers are formed in clusters all over the branches before any leaves emerge. The flowers are usually held on to the shrub for a few weeks before they are dropped and leaves emerge. The leaves are a deep green with a slight point on the tip and veins that curve upward with the shape of the leaf, the pattern of their leaves is distinct for the dogwood family. Cornus mas has interesting bark that exfoliates off of the branches, giving it winter interest. After leaves are formed, the small, red, olive-shaped fruits appear in July but often go unnoticed because they are hidden by the leaves.
Cornelian cherry dogwood has some additional cultivars to choose from to fit your landscape. ‘Golden Glory’ is a smaller version, growing only to 12-15 feet tall and 8-10 feet wide with a narrow, upright form and is described as a heavy bloomer. This will fit better into some smaller landscapes. ‘Spring Glow’ and ‘Spring Sun’ or ‘Spring Grove’ are two cultivars that have a rounded growth habit and bright yellow blooms. There is also a white flowered cultivar called ‘Alba’. ‘Variegata’ has variegated leaves that have a cream colored margin on the leaf.
There are many great dogwoods for the landscape including flowering dogwood, kousa dogwood, pagoda dogwood, gray dogwood, and red-twig dogwood. All of these grow well in Nebraska, but Cornelian cherry dogwood is the earliest to bloom.
Cornelian cherry dogwood can be used in many locations in your landscape. It can be grown in masses or planted as a hedge row. You can also grow it individually as a specimen plant. It does best if planted in full sun but will tolerate some shade. Cornelian cherry dogwood will do well in our environment because it seems to have very little insect or disease problems and it can handle our cold winters. Cornus mas prefers to grow in well drained soils with high organic matter but it will tolerate the less desirable clay soils that are found in southeastern Nebraska.
Cornus mas is relished by birds and other wildlife as a great food, which makes it hard to find the fruits. If you do find the fruits before the birds get to it, they can be used to make tart jams and jellies. Cornelian cherry dogwood also tolerates deer scavenging, a need for most acreage landscapes.
Cornelian cherry dogwood is a great choice in your landscape. It can tolerate some tough growing conditions, provides food for wildlife, and blooms very early in the spring. There are many cultivar choices, so pick one that fits your needs and wishes for your landscape. Try one on your acreage for something different and to have the plant that brings winter to an end.