How to Plant & Grow Common Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)

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Red branches of the common dogwood plant
Common dogwood is great for adding color to your garden during the winter months. Donar Reiskoffer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cornus sanguinea is a deciduous perennial that forms dense shrubs. It is frequently referred to as common dogwood or bloody dogwood. Varieties that are often grown for ornamental purposes may be labeled ‘Midwinter Fire’ as their branches take on the colors of a vibrant flame through winter.

This species is a notable member of the Cornaceae family, which includes just 2 genera – Cornus and Alangium. Cornus includes up to 60 species of dogwoods found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Common dogwood is native to Eurasia, where its dense thickets may be found at sea to mountain level.

If your garden is in need of some color through the cold months, you should definitely consider cultivating this phenomenal species. When its simple leaves drop, a profusion of yellow to orange-colored branches are revealed. These gradually deepen in color, with the tips becoming wholly red. They begin to regain their leaves in spring, after which cymes of white flowers come into bloom. When pollinated, these develop into the characteristic fruits typical of most dogwood species. These are duly referred to as dogberries or houndberries.

Facts, Benefits & Uses of Common Dogwood

Common dogwood shrubs are best planted in clusters instead of singly. Mass plantings bring out their decorative features best. A full dogwood hedge would be hard to miss and may serve as an effective screen of branches for privacy or wind protection in the garden. The shrubs, which can grow to a height of 3 meters (9 feet), can also be planted as borders along frequented pathways as their features would prove to be appealing throughout the year.

Although the fiery twigs may be masked by green leaves through spring and summer, the flowers draw in a wealth of pollinators. Azure butterflies, giant silk moths, bees, and birds are just a few of this plant’s eager visitors. Birds benefit from the vitamin C and antioxidant-rich berries. Deer may occasionally nibble on leaves and branches as a snack, but a mature dogwood shrub is generally tolerant of grazing. In fall, the leaves become purplish red.

This species has earned a Gold Medal Award from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. It is also remarkably easy to maintain, transplant, and propagate due to its high adaptability and root suckers. Do note that the fibrous root system may prove to be challenging to control as it spreads, especially in moist soil. Excessively dense colonies may occur as a single plant can spread to 2.5 meters (8.2 feet).

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Common Dogwood Fact Sheet:
Deciduous perennial
USDA 4 – 7
Full sun to partial shade
May – June
9 feet (3 meters)
A few inches (root flare should be above soil level)
pH 5.5 – 6


Common Dogwood Growth, Hardiness & Climate

Common dogwood shrub by a pond
Common dogwood shrubs can be maintained along a pond’s edge as they prefer well-draining substrates that are kept consistently moist. AnRo0002, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

C. sanguinea thrives best in rich soils. Its root system is tolerant of most soil types, but prefers well-draining substrates that are kept consistently moist and slightly acidic. This means that its shrubs can be maintained along a pond’s edge. The most desirable colors tend to occur on young branches and stems, which is why gardeners may opt to prune large amounts of the plant each year. Older branches usually adopt a shade of green to grey when left on the plant.

Although this species can tolerate shade, it is generally more fertile under moderate sun exposure. The reddish outer bark is likely produced as a form of protection against harsh conditions as the plant becomes bereft of leaves. In the wild, common dogwood shrubs tend to occur in the partly shaded areas of deciduous forests, including their fringes. It may also find refuge alongside river banks, next to other mesophilic shrubs. Hardy to USDA zones 4 – 7, it can withstand seasonal fluctuations in temperature but may grow stressed under excessively hot or cold conditions.

How to Plant Common Dogwood

Common dogwood berries
You can harvest the fruits of your common dogwood plant for seed collection. Isidre blanc, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Common dogwood naturally spreads via seed or the spread of stolons, which are capable of generating new shoots and adventitious roots. You may opt to enlarge your dogwood colony or create new ones in other areas of your garden by either harvesting the fruits (for seed collection) or taking cuttings of mature branches.

If you plan to manually prepare seeds for the next growth period, prepare a bowl of water for soaking the berries. These should be left in water for about 2 days, during which some will float or sink as the outer layer (drupe) is softened. Separate those that float as these as less likely to be viable. Take the remaining softened fruits and use a sieve to remove the skin around the seeds. Thoroughly dry the seeds before stratifying them.

To effectively stratify common dogwood seeds, place them in a plastic pouch with peat moss. This bag should be stored at approximately 40˚C, inside a refrigerator. The seeds should be kept moist, but not too wet, and cold for about 4 months in order to simulate a full winter season. After this time, they should be planted in small pots with holes for drainage. A planting depth of around half an inch deep should suffice. Ensure that the soil is kept moist throughout the germination period.

Once seedlings are large enough, transplant them to individual pots. They will have to be reared in a greenhouse or cold frame until they are large enough to withstand outdoor conditions. Cuttings should likewise be grown in moist soil and kept in a cold frame. After a few more months of growth, you may outplant your dogwood shrubs in spring.

How to Care for Common Dogwood

A growing common dogwood shoot
If you cut the stems to near-ground level, common dogwood will be forced to quickly grow new shoots to survive. MurielBendel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As much as possible, keep the soil moist and rich. Provide your plant with mulch or additional shade during exceptional hot spells. Withhold fertilizer application until the second growing season, when the plant has matured. A low-strength fertilizer may be applied toward late spring, just when new growths are about to form. Try not to wait until it is too late, as any new growths in fall or winter may be susceptible to cold damage.

To bring out this species’ best colors, you will have to prune its branches each year. You may opt to cut down 25 – 30% of mature stems in spring in order to encourage the production of new branches. Some gardeners radically prune their dogwood shrubs every 2 – 3 years. By cutting down the stems to near-ground level, the plant is forced to quickly produce new shoots in order to survive. While this does generate the most colorful branches, the “new” shrub will be unable to produce flowers and fruits in the first year of growth.

How to Winter Common Dogwood

Often reared just for winter interest, common dogwood is cold hardy to temperatures that dip to -25˚C (-13˚F). The shrub will not require any special treatment through winter unless its root system is yet to mature. Note also that the branches of well-established trees may grow stressed when persistently battered by cold gales. If winter conditions in your area are extreme, consistent pruning (though not right before winter) and the provision of mulch should help this perennial persist through the years.

Is Common Dogwood Invasive or Toxic?

C. sanguinea is not considered an invasive species outside of its native range. It may spread to cover a considerable area due to its suckering roots, but it does not aggressively compete with other shrubs. Stressed dogwood trees may be problematic, however, as they are associated with serious diseases. The most notable one is dogwood anthracnose, a fungal disease that can survive in compromised dogwood tissues even through winter. Rainy weather can facilitate the spread of this disease to other nearby plants.

Fortunately, this plant is far from toxic and is, in fact, a favorite of white-tailed deer and many insects. Its pliable wood can safely be touched and manipulated by craftsmen, who use the branches for making wicker baskets, nets, fish traps, and tool handles.

Is Common Dogwood Edible? Will Animals Eat it?

Apart from its berries, common dogwood is not typically regarded as an edible plant. The consumption of leaves, stems, and roots may potentially make a person feel unwell, though they are free of toxins. The berries, which are rarely eaten straight from the tree, are quite sour and unpleasant as they contain bitter alkaloids. They are best used to produce sweetened juices or jams.

This ecologically important shrub can feed dozens of wild animals! Many migrating birds favor the berries of this species because they are high in fat and calcium. Dogberries are consumed by black bears, foxes, rabbits, beavers, and chipmunks as well. As a result, animal droppings are a major form of dogwood seed dispersal.

Where to Buy Common Dogwood & Seeds? (UK & US)

Cornus sanguinea can be purchased from plant nurseries throughout its native range. Seeds, bare-rooted plants, and potted individuals may also be ordered through online plant portals. This species is usually available for purchase from November to April, as it can be planted outdoors in winter. Apart from ‘Midwinter Fire’, ornamental cultivars include ‘Winter Flame’ and ‘Winter Beauty’.

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