Most dogwood species have opposite leaves and a few have alternate. The fruit of all species is a drupe with one or two seeds. Flowers have four parts.
Many species in subgenus Swida are stoloniferous shrubs, growing along waterways. Several of these are used in naturalizing landscape plantings, especially the species with bright red or bright yellow stems. Most of the species in subgenus Benthamidia are small trees used as ornamental plants. As flowering trees, they are of rare elegance and beauty, comparable to Carolina silverbell, Canadian serviceberry, and the Eastern Redbud for their ornamental qualities.
The fruit of several species in the subgenera Cornus and Benthamidia is edible, though without much flavour. The berries of those in subgenus Swida are mildly toxic to people, though readily eaten by birds. Dogwoods are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Emperor Moth, The Engrailed, Small Angle Shades and the following case-bearers of the genus Coleophora: C. ahenella, C. salicivorella (recorded on Cornus canadensis), C. albiantennaella, C. cornella and C. cornivorella (The latter three feed exclusively on Cornus). They were used by pioneers to brush their teeth. The pioneers would peel off the bark, bite the twig and then scrub their teeth.