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A deciduous, wide-spreading, small tree 10 to 20 ft high in cultivation, but occasionally twice as high in some parts of its native habitat; young shoots soon becoming glabrous. Leaves opposite, broadly oval or ovate; 3 to 6 in. long, 11⁄2 to 3 in. wide; rounded or tapered at the base, the apex with a short, abrupt, slender point; dark green and with scattered down above; pale, rather glaucous and downy beneath; stalk 1⁄4 to 3⁄4 in. long. Flowers insignificant, 1⁄4 in. long, produced in a crowded head 1⁄2 in. across, green tipped with yellow. The real beauty of the plant is in the four bracts that form in autumn and enclose the flower-head during the winter, expanding in May. These bracts are inversely heart-shaped, the apex broad, rounded and notched, white, 11⁄2 to 2 in. long, the whole forming a showy, corolla-like involucre 3 to 4 in. across, commonly called the ‘flower’. Bot. Mag., t. 526.
Native of the eastern United States, where it is generally distributed from Massachusetts southwards; introduced in the early part of the eighteenth century, and cultivated by Thos. Fairchild in his nursery at Hoxton in 1730. There is also evidence of its having been grown by Miller at Chelsea in 1739. Although really a very hardy shrub so far as its capability of supporting extreme cold is concerned, as is shown by its perfect health and robustness in the neighbourhood of Boston, Mass., it has never become generally cultivated in Britain. Through its susceptibility to spring frosts and the indifferent ripening of its wood in autumn, it is rarely seen in good health. It thrives best in south-eastern and eastern England in positions not subject to early autumn and late spring frosts; the damper, less sunny climate of the south-west does not suit it. After a fine summer the leaves change to glorious shades of red and crimson.
† cv. ‘Pluribracteata’. – Flowers with more numerous bracts than the standard four, and of differing size. This was described by Rehder in 1926 from a plant growing wild in North Carolina, of which propagations were distributed. There are trees of what is almost certainly the original clone at Guilford College, Greensboro, in the same state (The Garden (Journ. R.H.S.), Vol. 105 (1980), p. 78, and see further in the same volume, p. 341).
† cv. ‘Rainbow’. – Leaves margined with yellow.
f. rubra – Among the named clones, in addition to ‘Cherokee Chief’, are ‘Apple Blossom’ and ‘Spring Song’, the latter with bracts of a bright rosy red.
† cv. ‘Tricolor’. – Leaves with a marginal variegation of white flushed rose. The autumn colour is very striking.
In some British gardens C. florida flowers rarely, if at all. The remedy suggested by the late Sir George Jessel is to remove all side shoots and grow the plants as trees on a single trunk. He also emphasised that the plants must be given full sun (Int. Dendr. Soc. Year Book 1974, p. 59).
This species was described by Bean (B701, S183) and Krüssmann (K369). The huge array of its cultivars is covered by Cappiello & Shadow (2005).
Cornus florida var. pringlei auctt.
The Mexican subspecies of C. florida is semi-evergreen and has fewer flowers in the inflorescence. The floral bracts are acute and often adhere at the apices, forming a cage-like structure. There are typically only one to three comparatively large fruits in each cluster. In comparison, subsp. florida is deciduous and has free, rounded floral bracts with an apical notch. There are up to 20 flowers per inflorescence and up to 10 fruits per cluster. Rickett 1945, Sosa 1978, Dudley & Santamour 1992. Distribution MEXICO: Nuevo León, Veracruz. Habitat Montane forest between 1725 and 1950 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 7. Conservation status Not evaluated. Illustration Ward 2004; NT267.
The clasping bract tips in this taxon give it a unique appearance while in flower, and certainly add a different effect to a collection of flowering dogwoods. Larger trees such as those in the US National Arboretum, now 6.5 m tall and 5 m wide, after planting in 1992 (United States National Arboretum 2007), can be covered in flowers and make a spectacular show. It is now widely cultivated in the United States, succeeding wherever normal C. florida is happy. Jacobson (1996) reported an 18.6 m tree in Seattle, 37 years old. In Europe it is still scarce but there is a 4 m tree at Tregrehan that is growing well. Cornus florida subsp. urbiniana was first introduced by F.G. Meyer in 1948, with fresh blood coming from reintroductions in the early 1990s by the Yucca Do Nursery team of Carl Schoenfeld and John Fairey, who have done so much to promote Mexican plants in horticulture. They have made two selections, whose names honour the tree’s discoverer, Cyrus Pringle: the striking ‘Pringle’s White’ and the faintly pink-flushed ‘Pringle’s Blush’. The illegitimate name var. pringlei still crops up in the literature (Cappiello & Shadow 2005) and in nursery lists. The foliage of these trees persists longer than in other C. florida taxa, but is not evergreen. In full growth it is an attractive deep-green, with a slight sheen.