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Known both as C. sericea and C. stolonifera, our native red-osier or red twig dogwood is one of our most beautiful shrubs and is ideal for the wetter parts of your garden. It would be ideal near a downspout disconnect as it is tolerant of seasonal flooding.
At home along waterways, boggy areas and wet woodland areas from low to mid elevation across our region (and indeed, across most of North America), it is outstanding in the bright red, leafless stems in winter. For example, it was an unforgettable sight this summer: a bright ribbon of scarlet red winding its way along the bank of a river through the stark scenery and monochromatic winter colors of the arid Southern Oregon landscape.
That outstanding red color that gives this plant its name and distinct beauty is only one, albeit the most dramatic, of its virtues; it is, in fact, a plant with four-season interest and great wildlife value: Textured green, oval leaves in the spring are a striking contrast to the colorful bark.
Mid-spring to summer finds this shrub in bloom – frothy white clusters of tiny flowers ride the ends of the branches, giving way to white or bluish white berry-like fruits that are not particularly appetizing to the human palate, but that will draw birds to your garden in numbers, and are also a striking contrast to the stems and the foliage – which in the fall, turns various shades of red to red-orange, making it a blaze of color.
And then, there is the drama of the bare, red branches to light up the garden in the winter. Beautiful and electric, be it in contrast to the gray skies and icy rain, or a crisp white snowfall.
Extremely winter hardy (down to USDA zone 2), red twig dogwood is a fast-growing shrub, growing in sun or shade, from 3 to 15 feet in height and as wide - forming a thicket by horizontal stems at the base of the plant that root from nodes coming in contact with the ground. This thicket forming ability, along with its berries, makes it an excellent habitat plant for birds, providing both food and shelter. It also provides a quickly-established hedgerow and potential screening plant.
Keeping it in a partially shady spot with more “normal” garden water, pruning out the rooting horizontal branches, will maintain the plant as more of a single specimen, if you don’t want it to spread as readily.
There is also the C. s. ssp. occidentalis, which you will occasionally find in nurseries. This is a naturally-occurring slight variation of the species that is most readily found west of the Coast and Cascade ranges. It is one of numerous subspecies – all of which carry slight variations in leaf and flower, but are essentially the same as the species.
There are also many cultivars of C. sericea available, varying in mature size and growth habit, leaf and stem color (some have variegated leaves, some have branches that are all yellow, or range from yellow to orange to red). In other words, we think there is a C. sericea suitable for almost every garden setting!
Photo credit of cornus fruit: Greg Rabourn
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Common: Red Twig Dogwood, Red Osier Dogwood
Native Range: Low to mid-elevations throughout most of North America, along streams, in floodplains and boggy areas, moist to wet woodlands.
Characteristics: Multi-stemmed shrub 3-15’ tall and wide, spreading by horizontal branches at the base rooting at points of contact with the ground; thicket-forming, with newest branches the bright red that is its main feature.
Opposite, oval/ovate leaves; clusters of small white flowers, followed by white to bluish berries favored by birds. Leaves turn red in the fall, bare red branches providing colorful contrast in winter.
Culture: Grows in full sun to shade (performs better with at least some sun). Much prefers moist to wet conditions, can tolerate seasonal flooding. (That being said, it is also known to be tolerant of drier to more normal garden moisture conditions, especially if given some shade.)
Pests/Diseases: Can be susceptible to a variety of fungal diseases, some quite minor and easy to control.