Prefers moist, slightly acidic, well-drained soil. If planted in full sun, the shallow root system benefits with a layer of mulch to moderate soil temperature and conserve moisture. Best in part shade, protected from wind.
It is a small deciduous shrub or tree growing to 25 feet (8 m) (rarely 30 feet (9 m)) tall, with a trunk up to 6 inches (152 mm) in diameter. The branches develop characteristic horizontal layers separated by gaps, with a flat-topped crown. Its leaves are elliptic to ovate and grow to 2–5 inches (5–13 cm) long and 1–2 inches (25–51 mm) broad, arranged alternately on the stems, not in opposite pairs typical of the majority of Cornus species. The leaves are most often arranged in crowded clusters around the ends of the twigs and appear almost whorled. The upper sides of the leaves are smooth and green, while the undersides are hairy and a bluish color. The bark is colored gray to brown, becoming ridged as it ages. Small cream colored flowers are produced, with four small petals. The flowers are grouped into cymes, with the inflorescences 2–5 inches (5–13 cm) across. It bears berries with a blackish blue color. The tree is regarded as attractive because of its wide-spreading shelving branches and flat-topped head, and is often used in ornamental plantings. The flower clusters have no great white involucre as have those of the flowering dogwood, and the fruit is dark purple instead of red.