Common name: 'Cherokee Princess' flowering dogwood
by Scott Getz, Intern
Known as “one of our finest native trees” (Linda Kershaw), this spectacle of a flowering tree took my heart as we prepared to plant it along the White Walk in Garden in the Woods, Framingham, MA.
Benthamidia florida (formerly known as Cornus florida) ‘Cherokee Princess’ is a native tree growing in much of the United States, spreading from southeastern Maine west to Michigan and south to northern New Mexico. This tree thrives in the light shade of the woodland understory and loves the slightly acidic soil Massachusetts provides. One may be tricked as to the real flower; it is actually the greenish-silver blooms in the center of the four showy, white bracts.
This tree is sizeable for any homeowner, growing from a humble 12’ to 20’ in height and 8’-15’ in width. B. florida ‘Cherokee Princess’ has striking seasonal interest, beginning with the blooms before foliation and then handsome, grayish green foliage in spring that gives way to burnt red/maroon in autumn. In winter, its horizontal branching structure provides sculptural interest and the bark has an alligator-back appearance. The natural habit needs very little pruning.
This tree is simple to identify with many unique features. Biscuit shaped flowering buds are held on the end of the stems while the foliage buds are small and nearly hidden. The young stems are reddish purple turning gray and blocky when mature. Leaves are 2”-6” long, opposite, and have parallel veins arching toward the tip. The beauty of the fruit nearly matches the bloom. The bright red drupes are bitter and inedible, but of interest to non-human animals.
Today, known as “the aristocrat of flowering trees” (Micheal Dirr), the tree is beyond a treat to the eye. Parts of the tree have been used by Native Americans to dye porcupine quills and eagle feathers. Today, it has many uses, including providing wood for golf club heads and tool handles.
B. florida ‘Cherokee Princess’ is also the most resistant cultivar to the many diseases and disorders that have ravaged the population in the wild. Anthracnose is a major killer of this tree. Since the tree has such high value to the market, studies were done and the ‘Cherokee’ series or Benthamidia florida has proven to be the best against this fungus.
The history, ease of maintenance, and easy identification make this tree a necessity for the residential garden. However, before planting, remove the soil around the root flare where the trunk meets the root zone to keep from suffocating the tree. Create a healthy environment for your tree to grow and it will reward you with beautiful flowers, foliage, and winter interest for many years.