By Steve Kemp and Janet Rock
Photo by GSMA
Although it is illegal to dig up plants in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and transplant them in your yard (all plants, animals, and even rocks are protected in the park), you can purchase native plants at reputable nurseries and propagate a bit of the Smokies around your home. Our new Smokies LIVE column will feature some trees and shrubs native to the park that you can grow in your own backyard.
The flowering dogwood is a native Smokies plant that is relatively easy to incorporate into your own landscape. You should be able to find this small tree at a reasonable price at a local nursery that specializes in native (not ornamental) plants. Be sure and check the Latin name (Cornus florida, meaning “flower, blooming”) if you want a true Smokies denizen.
This tree has many positive attributes, including gorgeous bracts and flowers in April, attractive maroon leaves in early autumn, and bountiful red berries by October. An average dogwood tree produces 20 pounds of berries each year, which is good news for the 50 or more species of birds and mammals that consume them.
The tree seldom grows taller than 30 feet and reaches a diameter of only about a foot, so it poses less of a threat to structures than maples, oaks, or pines. It grows at a medium speed, generally a foot or two per year, and lives about as long as humans live.
Fortunately the dogwood can be grown in either sun or shade, though sunnier sites make it less susceptible to the deadly fungal disease called dogwood anthracnose. Soil should not be too wet or too dry, and the species is not fussy about soil acidity.
Flowering dogwood is native from Massachusetts to northern Florida and found as far west as Missouri. When the tree has completed its lifecycle, the extremely dense, hard wood makes superior tool handles and mallet heads.
The propagation of native plants has several advantages over exotics or ornamental species: the natives are naturally hardier and require less watering, pesticides, and fertilizing. They also provide food and habitat for birds, pollinating insects, and other wildlife. In addition, native plants help restore our historic landscapes and curtail the spread of invasive and destructive non-native species.
Steve Kemp worked as a seasonal ranger in multiple national parks and spent 30 years as a writer, editor, and publisher with GSMA. He is a frequent contributor to Smokies Life and is the author of several books, most notably Who Pooped in the Park? Janet Rock worked with the U.S. Forest Service before embarking on her 28-year career with GSMNP as the park’s official botanist. She co-authored the popular field guide Wildflowers of the Smokies and has contributed to several scientific articles on park plants.