By Terry W. Johnson
What would you say if I told you there is a native tree that produces a bounty of colorful berries that are relished by a host of songbirds and other backyard wildlife, and that this tree is as beautiful in a yard as it is in Georgia's woodlands?
Chances are you would tell me that there is no such tree. Well, actually there is. And it’s a tree that is familiar to Georgians: the flowering dogwood.
Don't feel bad if you thought that such a tree was a figment of my imagination. Although the beauty of the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is undisputed, its value as a wildlife food plant is underappreciated.
I have long thought this small woodland tree should be nicknamed the Little Red Tree. That’s because in autumn, it seems to emerge from obscurity with a blaze of red leaves and fruit.
Dogwood berries (botanists call them drupes) are about quarter-inch to a bit more than a 1/2-inch long. In the Peach State, they mature during September and October. The scarlet red, waxy-looking berries are oblong in shape and displayed in clusters of three to six berries.
In spite of the fact there are scores of different seeds and berries available to wildlife in the fall, the berries of the dogwood tree are among the most sought after. They are so popular, a year's entire crop of berries is often gobbled up long before we celebrate the arrival of the New Year.
Some biologists suggest that part of the reason for this popularity is the dogwood tree advertises its bounty of berries. Let me explain. The theory is that when migratory birds en route to their winter homes are looking for a quick, energy-packed meal, berry-producing plants such as the flowering dogwood cloaked in eye-popping red fall foliage stand out among countless other trees in a forested landscape. Upon seeing the Little Red Trees, birds that fly down to visit dogwoods can quickly eat their fill of nourishing dogwood berries and be on their way again. The benefit for the tree is the guarantee that it’s seeds will be scattered elsewhere in the birds' droppings.
Chemical analyses of dogwood berries have revealed that the seeds are high in calcium and fat. This makes them a valuable food for both migrating birds and resident wildlife alike.
Wildlife food habit studies have shown that at least 75 animal species consume dogwood berries. This long list includes 60 species of birds alone. The birds that eat dogwood berries include backyard favorites such as the northern mockingbird, eastern bluebird, hermit thrush, northern cardinal, common flicker, yellow-rumped warbler, gray catbird, pine warbler, yellow-bellied sapsucker, brown thrasher and cedar waxwing, as well as downy, hairy, pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers.
Among the mammals frequenting our backyards and known to dine on the shiny, red berries are the eastern chipmunk, eastern cottontail, gray squirrels and fox squirrels.
As you might imagine, competition for dogwood berries can be intense. For that reason, it is not surprising that birds, like the mockingbird, will defend a berry-laden dogwood from other hungry animals.
Each year, my wife and I enjoy watching a mockingbird stand guard over the berries borne on a cluster of dogwood tree in our front yard. When another bird flies in to feed, the mockingbird will intercept and chase the interloper away before it has a chance to nab a single berry.
Sadly, however, flowering dogwoods are disappearing from our landscape. They are often poisoned or bulldozed after logging operations have been completed. They can also be weakened and even killed by the dogwood borer. These insects enter a dogwood through a wound made through the bark. For that reason, if you have dogwoods in your yard, be careful that you don't injure the trees with a string trimmer or mower.
If that is not enough, for years a dogwood blight has been killing dogwoods across the state. The blight is caused by the anthracnose fungus. This fungus causes purple spots to appear on the leaves. This is followed by cankers forming on the trunk and branches. These growths will eventually kill the tree.
The disease is thought to have been brought to the United States during the 1800s on kousa dogwoods imported from the Orient. It can be controlled, though, if you act before a tree's branches begin to die. For more information on controlling the blight, contact the University of Georgia's Cooperative Extension.
The beauty of the flowering dogwood did not go unnoticed by two of our founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. When Washington designed the landscape surrounding his home at Mount Vernon, he place flowering dogwoods on the south side of the mansion. Thomas Jefferson chose to scatter the distinctive trees around his plantation home.
The flowering dogwood is truly a special tree. It provides with shade, attractive flowers, foliage and berries. Additionally, it is yet another important item that wildlife can find on the smorgasbord of wild foods offered on nature's bountiful fall buffet table.
Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, “A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”