When I planted a Cornus capitata (evergreen dogwood) that Dan Hinkley described as, “Admittedly tender, it flourishes in the cool PNW if planted against a warm, southerly exposed wall, preferably brick, and many centuries old…”—I knew I was flirting with hardiness zones in my garden. I wondered if the tree would survive the long haul. For the cost of eight dollars, I willingly took the risk.
Many years have passed since I planted the evergreen dogwood seedling from a d2 pot and into the ground on the south end of my home. To be exact, the year was 1998 when I found the dogwood offered in a Heronswood Nursery catalog—a seedling from seeds collected from an Alpine Garden Society expedition in 1995. I still have the marked up catalog from that year with a star next to it marking my initial interest, before I whittled the list down to what I could afford that year. The seedling won on my second round of purchases. My notes in the margin of the catalog said “south wall of house.” I had a plan. I followed through.
Sixteen years later, I still don’t know if I can definitely say how the tree performs in the Northwest. Here is why. In 2013, for the first time since I planted it, the tree covered itself in blossoms. Sure, it blossomed with a flower here and there over the years mostly on the lower branches. In 2013, it covered itself in creamy-white bracts that surrounded the smaller flowers, like no other time before. The bracts continued to grow larger (and so did my eyes when I viewed them) and began turning pink around the edges as the season progressed. In the end, the bracts went pink with age and the dogwood tree in its twenty-foot tall splendor looked glorious! The show didn’t end there. Fruit began to develop. They started out smallish and continued to grow until they grew into the size of a small to medium sized plums. They hung onto the tree for a long time. I picked what I could reach and ate the custard-tasting fruit, spitting out the seeds around the garden.
For a number of years the tree received little supplemental watering. The area where it grew, we ripped out a fence and a portion of the garden to accommodate my father’s fifth wheel when he came to live with us in 2006. In 2011, professional gardener, Philip Bloomquist began work in restoring the garden, and by 2012, I began irrigating the garden area again. The tree survived the neglect along with other shrubs and perennials.
Two years of harsh winters in 2009 and 2010 did not kill the tree. Those years it lost all its leaves, and I thought it might not make it. When the spring brought new leaves onto the branches, I became confident the tree could survive in my garden. Philip took cuttings for his nursery a few years before and we planted one of them in another area of the garden. A healthy specimen growing in a gallon pot didn’t help it to survive the harshness of the 2010 winter. In the same spot in 2012, I planted another form of the species Cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’ purchased from Cistus Nursery (in Oregon). According to them, it is supposed to be a hardier selection than my species. Its first year in the ground we experienced a mild winter, which most likely helped its survival. With no south brick wall or home to help it, I am watching to see how this new one survives harsher winters, keeping my fingers crossed that it becomes well established before the next one.
I am certain that irrigating the older dogwood helped it flower better than before. However, weather may be part of the equation too. This is the part I enjoy the most about gardening--experimenting, discovering, and learning what works and what doesn’t. When I first planted the tree seedling, I couldn’t find any advice on how to grow it besides the tongue-in-cheek brick wall suggestion. I learned as it grew (and neglected it for some of those years) and so far, it is a proven survivor once established. I plan to supplement with water during our drought to ensure it receives an inch of moisture every week).
I hope my dogwood continues to flower as it did in 2013, even after a harsh winter, because I can control its watering needs. If the beautiful bract display depends on the weather then I will have to relish the showy bonus years when it flowers, and enjoy its presence as a beautiful evergreen tree during the barren years.