Pacific Northwest Native Plant Profile: Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea)

Cornus sericea ssp. occidentalis

Red-twig dogwood is one of those multitalented shrubs that grows in a variety of moist habitats and keeps us enthralled year round. Also known as red osier dogwood and creek dogwood (among other common names), it is a multi-stemmed, deciduous, long-lived and fairly fast-growing shrub that develops into an open, somewhat rounded thicket. Its common name comes from signature reddish stems which become brightest in winter. Botanically speaking, it’s known as Cornus sericea (syn. Cornus stolonifera). Sericea comes from the Latin “sericatus,” which means “silky” and describes the soft texture of the leaves and young twigs. Stolonifera refers to its lower stems or branches that tend to tiptoe horizontally and grow roots when they touch the soil.

Besides its vibrant red stems, this plant has oppositely-arranged, deep green leaves that turn an array of colors as the days shorten in autumn. On this sunless late November day in my back yard, the leaves range from a soft gold and pale orange to deep red, and they’re becoming more purplish-red each day. Come spring, four-petaled creamy white flowers will appear in clusters in May to July and will be tailed several months later by soft white to pale blue fruit (shown above) that may persist into winter if the birds don’t devour them.
Cornus sericea

How it grows
Red-twig dogwood has a large range—from Alaska and northern Canada from coast to coast, and as far south as Virginia in the east and Chihuahua, Mexico in the west, at low to middle elevations. There are two subspecies: C. sericea ssp. occidentalis, which occurs in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, California and British Columbia, and C. sericea ssp. sericea, which is found much more widely. Differences are miminal, with the latter having slightly larger flower petals and fuzzier leaves and shoots. Both typically occur in moist, open sites such as meadows, bogs, floodplains, and near shorelines, but they also can be found under forest canopy as well as within more open woodlands in or close to riparian areas.

Wildlife value
Red-twig dogwood is important for providing diverse structure, cover, nesting habitat, and a variety of edibles for insects, mammals, amphibians, and a large number of bird species. Bees and other pollinators, such as butterflies, use the flowers for nectar and/or pollen. Birds (including waxwings, thrushes, band-tailed pigeons, and grosbeaks), small mammals, and bears dine on its fruits—one or two-seeded drupes which are reportedly very high in fat—in summer and fall. According to the US Forest Service, “moose, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, beavers, and rabbits” commonly browse the stems; twigs and new shoots provide especially delectable and nutritious winter browse. Last, but not least, this shrub provides cover and important nesting habitat for songbirds, small mammals and amphibians, as well as host plants for the larvae of butterflies like the echo blue butterfly.

Cornus sericeaTry it at home
Although fairly shade tolerant, plants growing in full sun typically grow much more compactly than those in shade, usually bloom more profusely and exhibit more stem color. Depending on the amount of sun it receives, red-twig dogwood can grow from about 6 to 16 feet tall, and nearly as wide, so it may be best to leave it out of very small gardens. If you have the space, use it in any moist area where you’d like spectacular aesthetic appeal as well as valuable wildlife habitat: At the back of a border, next to a rain garden, as a somewhat open screen, as part of a large hedgerow, or to stabilize eroding soil on slopes. Plant it in the fall to give it an easy start in life, adding some leaf compost if your soil is in poor shape.

Damp soil is important, and slow-draining soil is not a problem (though this plant shouldn’t have its feet immersed in water for prolonged periods). Although its tolerance for drought isn’t terribly high, with a little shade and soil that’s rich in organic matter, infrequent summer watering during excessively hot periods should be all that is needed once it’s established (typically just a couple of years). And, allowing for a dry period at the end of summer is actually a good (and natural) thing (as long as the plant looks healthy), since it prepares the plant for winter. Red-twig dogwood is often planted at restoration sites, which are rarely watered afterwards, and most usually do fine.

Grab a partner
Since red-twig dogwood grows in such a wide range of habitats, there are a number of plant friends with which it would like to live. For best ecological and gardening results, choose associated native plants that live in communities that currently grow or likely would have grown in your immediate area. In the Pacific Northwest, some of the plants that closely associate with red-twig dogwood include western redcedar (Thuja plicata), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), vine maple (Acer circinatum), alder (Alnus spp.), willow (Salix spp.), aspen (Populus tremuloides), paper birch (Betula papyrifera), gooseberries (Ribes spp.), black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii), lupine (Lupinus spp.), aster (Symphyotrichum spp.), and many others.

© 2016 Eileen M. Stark

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