Flowering dogwood vs. kousa dogwood – THE comparison guide

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a longstanding favorite prized for its abundant blooms and striking berries – but fewer are now being planted because of the popularity of new(er) tree on the block Cornus kousa, the kousa dogwood, also known as the Strawberry, Japanese or Chinese dogwood. They’re a great deciduous tree for a small space.

What are the main differences?

Kousa dogwood is native to Asia. It has a different growth habit, is more cold-tolerant, less heat-tolerant, later flowering and more disease-resistant than the US-native flowering dogwood, and has exfoliating bark. Its fruit is not berry-like but strawberry-like in appearance and is edible raw.

The flowering dogwood is the one most often found in local nurseries, but these days you’ll find more and more kousa dogwoods around – and it’s easier than ever to buy one from an online nursery.

Whether you’re trying to identify whether your tree’s a kousa or a flowering dogwood, or if you’re trying to decide which to put on your property. I did the research when I was trying to decide for myself (I eventually went for kousa, but that doesn’t mean you should – read on)

Cornus Florida = Flowering dogwood – US native.

Cornus Kousa = Kousa dogwood – Southeast asia native.

Flowering dogwood and kousa dogwood – compared in detail

SpeciesFlowering dogwood (Cornus florida)Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa)
Blossom appearanceWhite (some cultivars pink), pointed bracts, points turned inwards at endsWhite (some cultivars pink) pointed bracts
Blossom timingBefore leaves appear – early spring to early summer, lasting up to 4 weeksAfter leaves appear – mid-spring to early/mid-summer, lasting up to 6 weeks
Leaf sizeLarger (2.5 – 5”) longSmaller (1.5 – 4” long)
Fall leaf colorScarlet – purple 3 – 5weeksScarlet – purple 3 – 5 weeks
Growth rate12-18 inches per year12-24 inches per year
Growth habitInitially upright (especially if sunnier site), then spreading to rounded shapeInitially upright but more horizontally spreading in maturity
Eventual heightUsually 25 feet, max 50 feetUsually 25 feet, max 30 feet
Eventual spread15-20 feet15-25 feet
LifespanTypically 80 yearsTypically 100 years+
Pruning requirementsLowLow
BarkScaly, grey, thick in older treesMore attractive – thin, unique exfoliating grey-orange flakes
RootsShallow, not invasiveShallow, not invasive
Fruit typeBright-red, bean-like clusters of drupes.  Ripens late summer to mid-fall  Fused druplets which form an aggregate fruit – pink-red, strawberry-like.  Ripens late summer to late-fall  
Fruit edible?Virtually inedible – better for jellyAstringent, but edible
Attractive to wildlife?Yes – birds, mammals, beesYes – birds, mammals, bees
Self-fertile? (makes fruit without need for another tree to cross-pollinate)Partially – further detail in this postPartially – further detail in this post
Sun preferencePartial shade (dislikes full sun)Partial shade OR full sun
Winter hardiness (link to USDA map)To zone 5To zone 4-5
Heat toleranceMore tolerant (grows well in southern US states)Less tolerant (prefers more northern regions)
Soil preferencePrefers well-drained, slight acidic (pH 6-7); tolerates variety of soil typesPrefers well-drained, slight acidic (pH 6-7); tolerates variety of soil types
Watering requirementLess drought-tolerant – water young trees frequentlyMore drought-tolerant – water young trees less frequently
Disease resistanceSusceptible particularly to anthracnose and dogwood borerGenerally resistant to anthracnose and dogwood borer

Are kousa dogwoods more cold-hardy than flowering dogwood?

Cold hardiness refers to the tree’s ability to survive in colder areas. You may have noticed in the table that flowering dogwood’s hardy to USDA zone 5, but kousa dogwood hardy to USDA zone 4-5.

Basically, reasonable minds have disagreed, with some claiming it can do well in zone 4.

However, it’s worth considering why we plant dogwoods in the first place – for the stunning white blooms (strictly speaking they’re bracts, rather than flowers, but anyway). Since the kousa dogwood blooms a few weeks later than the flowering dogwood (sometimes as late as late June in the northern hemisphere) the delicate bracts are almost never going to encounter a sudden frost that could kill them off. This makes for a more reliable year-on-year blossom if you’re in a colder region.

Can kousa dogwood still get anthracnose?

You’ll note that kousa dogwood’s less susceptible to the most devastating dogwood disease, anthracnose. This is a fungal infection (the fungus being the menacing-sounding Discula destructiva) that causes leaf spotting, dieback and death of limbs and in some cases can completely kill the tree.

Kousa dogwood can still get anthracnose, but it tends to cause only minor leaf spotting.

Some think that the infection was actually imported to the US along with the kousa dogwoods that were first brought over from asia – the reason kousas are so resistant being that they lives with anthracnose for centuries and adapted to it.

For more information on dogwood anthracnose, how it affects flowering dogwood and how it can be controlled, see my post here.

Flowering dogwood and kousa dogwood hybrids

Let’s not forget option C – a hybrid between the two. There are a few cultivars that are commonly sold – the main ones I’ve encountered are ‘Constellation’, ‘Aurora’ and ‘Stellar Pink’.

These seem to share the anthracnose resistance of kousa dogwood as well as some of the resistance to dogwood borer, but may be a little more heat tolerant – so consider one of these in you’re in the southern US states.

Bear in mind that the cultivars tend to be sterile – they’ll bloom, but they won’t produce any fruit.

Which is the more deer-resistant?

Both flowering dogwood and kousa dogwood are fairly deer-resistant. While a hungry deer will eat almost anything, they seem to prefer other vegetation.

However, kousa dogwood’s believed to be slightly more deer-resistant.

Kousa dogwood or flowering dogwood – the verdict

For me, it’s kousa dogwood hands-down. It’ll grow well in full sun, isn’t so prone to drying up and it blooms for longer. The flaking bark of the kousa’s much more attractive and provides interest in the winter months. You’re much less likely to struggle with an (incurable) anthracnose infection, which is really the Achille’s Heel of the flowering dogwood and kousa generally lives longer.

But let’s be honest, both these trees are excellent choices for a small yard. I’d take either, any day!

PS: you might have noticed that kousa dogwood and flowering dogwood have different lifespans. Do trees really die of old age? I’ve answered this big question here – check it out!

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