Wednesday, April 27, 2011

American Tragedy: Slow Death in a Woods near You

Native dogwood along Triadelphia Mill Road
near the Big Branch boat landing,
Patuxent Reservoir Watershed 

Millions have died over the last 35 years, and each spring fewer survive to bloom along our forest edges and along our country roads and highways. They are our native dogwood tree, Cornus florida. The culprit: a fungus, Discula destructiva, also known as dogwood anthracnose, which has been killing and spreading since the 1970’s.

In his Urban Jungle column, “Devastated dogwoods,” in the Washington Post, Patterson Clark says the fungus has killed about 75 percent of native dogwoods in Central Maryland and 80 percent in Northern Virginia.

After I read that column, I took a drive along nearby country roads and walked along a watershed to look for and photograph native dogwoods in the wild. I saw plenty of the trees in front yards—and many of them looked less than healthy—but I found fewer in the wild than I had anticipated. Apparently the anthracnose is killing them slowly but surely. Tragically, potentially resistant seedlings have little chance for survival in the wild where too-large deer herds browse native flora to the ground.

The Cornell University fact sheet on this problem suggests several solutions. One that I have indulged in reluctantly is to plant the Asian dogwood, Cornus kousa, which is resistant to the disease. Few native critters, however, call the kousa home or feed on it, though deer and squirrels here at Meadow Glenn relish its small, reddish fruit.

The final sentence in the Cornell fact sheet holds out some hope that our native dogwood: “A resistant Flowering Dogwood cultivar named 'Appalachian Spring' has also been developed from a living tree in an otherwise devastated Maryland forest and may soon be available.”

Yes, we soon may be able to plant an anthracnose-resistant native dogwood in our yards, but who will replace the tens of millions of dogwoods that have died in our forests and along our country roads? The sad fact is that in a few years our wild, native dogwoods likely will be “history.”

I suggest you grab your camera and take a drive along a country road or take a walk along a woodland stream to enjoy that spring icon we all love so much, our native flowering dogwood—before there are no wild ones left to enjoy.

To read Patterson Clark’s “Devastated dogwoods” in his Urban Jungle feature in the Washington Post, CLICK HERE.

To read the Cornell University fact sheet about dogwood anthracnose, CLICK HERE.


  1. Ours are gorgeous this year! Guess I'd better hurry and get some photos before they die out!

  2. Every year there will be fewer. So sad. Yes, better get some classy photos.