The Kousa dogwood, or Cornus kousa, is a lovely spring-blooming deciduous tree whose popularity in our region came about due to the decline of our native species of dogwood - the Cornus Florida, or Flowering dogwood. Growing along the East Coast from Massachusetts to Florida, the native dogwoods suffered severe dieback beginning in the late 1980s from dogwood anthracnose (Discula destructiva), a devastating fungal disease. Cornus kousa proved resistant to the anthracnose, and it’s popularity as a hearty substitute grew.
Also known as Japanese dogwood, Chinese dogwood or Japanese strawberry tree, the Kousa dogwood is native to East Asia. In the United States it is hearty in zones 5-8, prefers a site with acidic soil and at least 4 hours of full sun per day, and can grow 20-30 feet tall. The tree has a pleasing form with horizontal branching which creates a rounded shape, but the real draw is the prolific blooms which cover the tree from late May through June. The blooms are unusual in that what appears to be a white-petaled flower is actually a cluster of small yellow-green flowers surrounded by four spreading pink or white bracts.
The fruits of the Kousa are round and soft and pink to red in color, calling to mind a raspberry on a stem. A favorite of songbirds and squirrels, the fruits are also edible for human consumption. Starting out a greenish color, the fruits begin to ripen in August and change to a deep red. Ripe fruits are soft to the touch and about the size of a quarter. The outer skin is bitter but the inner pulp, which is a golden color, has the flavor of an apple/mango. There are small seeds inside which can be discarded. Recipes include Kousa fruit jams, muffins, and even wine.
In the fall the leaves turn a beautiful scarlet, and when the tree matures the bark begins to exfoliate, providing winter interest. There are several cultivars of Kousa dogwood available, including ‘Milky Way’ which is known for its heavy flowering, ‘Satomi’ with pink bracts, and ‘Wolf Eyes’ which is a variegated form.