Dogwood tree has few or no berries? A straightforward guide


If you’re reading this you’re wondering why your dogwood isn’t producing the berries that it should – either it never has produced, or perhaps it seems to have stopped!

It may be hard to find an answer to this on the web because there are several dogwood species that are commonly found in yards, and they have considerably varying fruiting habits.

Dogwood trees may not produce fruit for their first 10 years, depending on the propagation method. Untimely pruning and numerous environmental factors affect production. While they can make berries on their own, there may be very few unless another compatible tree is available for pollination.

Well, the fruits are really drupes (a fleshy fruit with a central stone) not berries… but I’m just going to call them berries in this article. Similarly, what we usually refer to as dogwood flowers are actually bracts, which are modified leaves. But I did say it’d be a straightforward guide…

The coolest thing about dogwoods is the large, white bracts that you’ll get on most Cornus species, but the second coolest is the fruit. I’m going to unpack the causes in this hands-on gardening guide, so you can work out what’s going on with your dogwood.

cornus sanguinea berries drupes bloodtwig dogwood
New berries growing on cornus sanguinea (bloodtwig dogwood)

How old are dogwood trees when they start making berries?

This section’s about dogwood trees that are up the age of about 10.

So I mentioned above that it depends on the propagation method. Dogwood trees are actually quite easy to grow from seed, so quite a number of nursery-sold dogwood trees are actually ceilings.

The production of flowers and berries are obviously intrinsically linked – so you won’t get berries until the tree has already started flowering.

Seedling dogwood trees have to reach maturity (when they make flowers and berries) from scratch. This can take up to 10 years in Cornus florida, the US-native flowering dogwood. Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) is the new(er) kid on the block, growing in popularity. Its seedlings might develop to maturity within 8 years – a little more quickly.

This feels like a long time, when you planted the tree specifically to see those beautiful flowers and berries!

Perhaps you planted two or three young dogwoods, and while they all look healthy to you, one isn’t flowering.  IF they were all grown from seed, they aren’t going to be genetically identical.  Just as some humans mature faster, it’s the same with trees!  Give it a further year or two.

However, if your tree was not grown from seed, it can be expected to produce flowers and berries a lot more quickly. Dogwoods can be propagated by asexual methods such as planting cuttings, budding and grafting. Grafting is popular – this means a small upper part (scion) of a dogwood tree is attached to a compatible rootstock and grows to become a tree in its own right. These trees have a headstart towards maturity and might flower and make berries in as little as 2 years.

You can sometimes easily identify a ‘join’ at the base of the trunk, where the scion was grafted to the rootstock. Or it might even be worth calling the nursery you got the tree from – they’ll be able to tell you whether their dogwoods are grown from seed or by another method such as grafting, and how long it’ll take before flowering’s expected.

But even then, if you’ve recently planted a dogwood tree on your property, you’ve probably transferred it out of a container, and dogwoods can be subject to transplant shock. The roots are readjusting to their new environment, and that can stop the tree from making flowers or berries for 2 to 3 years in itself – even if it was fruiting beforehand. There may have been other clues to indicate transplant shock – such as temporary yellowing or dropping leaves.

So in all of the above cases, provided conditions are otherwise OK (see below!) it’s just a matter of time! If the tree looks healthy to you, and is leafing out and getting taller – it may be a waiting game and nothing more.

What time of year do dogwood berries appear?

This does vary by dogwood species. As a guide, the berries are usually fully ripe about 4 to 5 months after flowering occurs.

The most commonly found of these in the US will be flowering dogwood, followed by Kousa dogwood – unless you’re on the west coast, where Pacific dogwood grows natively.

In the UK, by far it’s bloodtwig dogwood (really known as ‘common dogwood’ there). It doesn’t produce the big white bracts (modified leaves) that you find on other ornamental dogwood trees, but the blood-red stems look striking, especially in winter.

Here’s a comparison table of the most common species, so you know what to expect.

Dogwood speciesFruit characteristicsRipening months (northern hemisphere)
Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)Bright-red, bean-like clusters of drupesAugust to October
Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa)Fused to form an aggregate fruit – pink-red, strawberry-likeAugust to November
Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttalli)Fused to form an aggregate fruit – pink/orange to red drupesSeptember to October
Bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)Black drupes in clustersSeptember to October
Tartarian dogwood (Cornus alba)White/bluish berries in clustersAugust to October
Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas)Deep-red, coffee bean-shapedJuly to August
Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alterniflora)Blue-black drupes in clustersSeptember to October

Look at the third column. If your tree’s of a mature age, but there’s no hint of even early berries visible on your tree by this stage, you may have an issue – read on.

kousa dogwood fruit ripe
I took this photo of kousa dogwood fruit in late August during ripening

Are dogwood trees self-fertile, or not?

This is a confusing issue. Consider it if you had flowers, but not berries.

If you have one dogwood tree, and there aren’t any others nearby to cross-pollinate from, will your dogwood tree still produce berries?

Some will say yes, because the dogwood flowers aren’t either male or female – the trees are monoecious, meaning they are hermaphrodites – the flowers have both male and female parts, so in theory they can fertilize themselves.

However, as with many other monoecious trees, they have a degree of self-incompatibility, meaning this process isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Academic research published in 2004 and 2009 in the journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science on the two most popular ornamental dogwoods, Cornus florida and Cornus kousa, has found that they produced very few berries on their own.

So although they are monoecious, dogwoods will produce a much better yield of berries if they are cross-pollinated by another dogwood tree. This mixing of genetic material reduces the risk of parthenocarpy, where seedless fruit (that often falls off early) may even be produced.

Consider planting another dogwood tree on your property – they’ll cross-fertilize each other, and you can expect a much better berry yield on both.

Dogwood drupes and biennial bearing

This one might apply if your dogwood tree DID produce plenty of berries last year. Is it possible that the tree’s taking some sort of rest this year?

Yes. Dogwoods, similar to many other fruiting trees (see these relevant articles about hazelnutwalnut, and mulberry for just some examples), can have an inbuilt tendency to produce abundant flowers one year, and abundant fruit the next. Was there an especially good show of flowers recently? The reduced crop of berries might be merely a biennial-bearing trait.

Temperature changes and dogwood drupes

Most dogwood species in the US survive and grow in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8, but they won’t necessarily be a good fit for your area.

Hardiness zones are defined according to how low the temperature typically drops in mid-winter.  Here’s a link to the official USDA Hardiness Zone map. Canada has adopted the USDA system – here’s their map for reference. Australia’s hardiness zones are equivalent to USDA zone 11 in the north and zone 7b in the south, while areas in the UK range from hardiness zones from 7 to 11 according to the same US scale.

Dogwood speciesPreferred USDA hardiness zones
Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)5-9
Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa)5-8
Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttalli)7-9
Bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)4-7
Tartarian dogwood (Cornus alba)3-7
Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas)5-7
Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alterniflora)4-7
Dogwood species and hardiness zones – a comparison table

Check out your location on the maps linked above. Just because you can buy a dogwood tree in your area, doesn’t mean it’s biologically guaranteed to grow well there. And if it doesn’t thrive, that’ll affect flower and fruit production, which takes a lot of energy, water and nutrients.

Hardiness zones have limitations as a guide anyway – they’re based only on winter temperatures. Two areas in similar hardiness zones can have wildly different summer heats. For example, kousa dogwood won’t grow well in the southern US states in comparison to the flowering dogwood.

And the spring temperature can have a huge impact as well. In particular, an untimely frost in spring can kill off the most delicate parts of the tree – namely, the new flowers. This is a common cause of a poor blossoming year, and if there are no flowers – that means no fruit either.

So if the temperature’s causing issues with your dogwood tree’s berry production, you’ll notice a lack of flowers that precedes it.

Pruning – all about the timing

Most people will tell you the best time to prune deciduous trees is in the winter, during dormancy. However, if you do prune dogwoods in the winter, you might not get many flowers and berries the following growing season. This is because you’ll cut off many of the flower buds – which are already present on the tree in the winter. If you did prune this past winter, worry not – it’ll take a year or so, but it’ll recover.

So if you want to see fruit on your dogwood every year, you can –

a) prune immediately after the berries have dropped

b) prune during dormancy but try your best not to cut off too many flower buds (you may be able to distinguish these from leaf buds. Flower buds are fatter and shorter)

c) prune only one or two limbs a year, so you won’t limit flowering too much

Of course, if there are dying or dead tree parts, no point in waiting – just prune these off as soon as you see them.

Environmental factors affecting dogwood drupe production

Anything that affects the overall growth and vigor of the tree will affect the berry production…

Sun

Most dogwoods like partial shade – they’re known for growing on the edge of forests. An exception is kousa dogwood, which will grow in full sun.

If your dogwood’s planted in a very shady site, you may find it neither grows well nor produces many berries.

Soil

Most dogwoods prefer soil that’s slightly on the acid side (pH 6-7). You can easily test this using a home test kit (I like to use Rapitest). Soil that’s alkaline (pH >7) may not give the dogwood the nutrient availability to make berries, so you could try using an ericaceous fertilizer to bring the pH down slightly.

They’re quite tolerant of different soil types but like deep, loamy soil best.

Can fertilizer help? Yes, possibly. Consider adding a fertilizer that’s relatively high in potassium, which helps with flower and fruit production. Tomato fertilizer is a simple and readily available feed that some gardeners use for this purpose, but there are others on the market that are especially for fruit trees. Whatever you do, make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions – too much can cause as many problems as too little.

Water

Dogwoods have fairly shallow roots and don’t tolerate drought conditions as well as many other trees. If you’ve had a dry summer, the tree may not have the available vigor to start setting fruit – which uses a lot of water as well.

They also really dislike waterlogged, boggy soil.

Young trees especially need to be watered once every one to two weeks over the summer, depending on how hot and dry it is. It’s better to use a hose rather than a sprinkler, so the leaves don’t get wet, as this can increase susceptibility to anthracnose (see below).

One of the easiest ways to monitor this is to check the soil around the tree with your finger. Just dig down an inch or so – does the soil feel dry, or slide easily off your finger? Get the hose out and give it 20 minutes of irrigation.

Availability of pollinators

Dogwoods need insects – chiefly bees – to pollinate their flowers. No insects = no berries. It’s well known that bee populations have been on the decline in many parts of the world.

It’s not just dogwoods that have had issues here – I’ve found it to be a common problem for gardeners in these times.

Here’s a great video by gardening legend Alan Titchmarsh that explains how to attract bees!

Dogwood fruiting and disease

Dogwood drupes and disease

The most important disease affecting dogwoods worldwide is anthracnose – a fungal infection that causes leaf spots and eventually withering of entire branches. A heavily infected tree will have drastically impaired flowering and fruiting.

It particularly affects the flowering dogwood Cornus florida – see this article for more information.

The kousa dogwood’s natural resistance to anthracnose has been one reason for its increasing popularity in recent years.

Summary

If your dogwood got a poor show of berries, or none at all, think through these points.

  1. It might just be too young for berries, or too recently transplanted.
  2. Is it the right time of year yet? Check the table above.
  3. If there are no other dogwoods around, it might need a pollination partner to really get fruiting
  4. If might be having a rest this year – dogwoods have a biennial-bearing tendency
  5. Is the species suitable for your temperature zone, or has an untimely spring frost zapped some of your flowers?
  6. Did you prune it this winter? Many flower buds may have been lopped off.
  7. Is the site on your property too shady?
  8. Is it getting enough water?
  9. Is the soil pH right? If so, consider a fertilizer that’s relatively higher in potassium.
  10. You’ll need insects to pollinate – consider trying to boost your bee population
  11. Check the tree for leaf spots – anthracnose is a big problem for dogwoods, especially Cornus florida.

If you found this helpful, check out my other articles on flowering dogwood and kousa dogwood!

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