A lovely shrub for adding color and texture to a year-round garden, Cornus sericea is a hardy perennial with many desirable features. It is best known as red osier dogwood, though it may also be referred to as American dogwood, creek dogwood, red brush, and red willow. It is a notable member of the Cornaceae family, which is largely composed of evergreen shrubs and trees under the Cornus and Alangium genera. This dogwood shrub is native to much of North America.
C. sericea stands out like a sore thumb in winter, when its stark red branches may contrast a bed of snow. They can be described as fiery and vibrant, particularly when some of the stems display flashes of golden hues. A single plant is able to produce multiple branching stems that grow to a maximum height of about 9 feet (2.7 meters). From spring to summer, the ovate leaves are medium to deep green in color. They gradually darken in fall, becoming a deep red-violet before they finally drop.
This species’ flowers occur as clusters in late spring. White, fragrant, but not particularly showy, they help soften the appearance of the shrub. Once pollinated, they develop into generous clusters of white-colored berries. These may occasionally be tinged blue. Debatably of higher ornamental value than the flowers, the fruits tend to persist through winter.
Facts, Benefits & Uses of Red Osier Dogwood
Red osier dogwood can easily be appreciated on its own or as a part of a mass planting. It can be used to create a colorful shrub border. For maximum winter appeal, it would be best to grow this plant alongside evergreen species. The contrast between the red branches and tough foliage can serve as a visual attraction with many added benefits.
If your pondside area needs some texture and vertical dimension, a few dogwood shrubs should do the trick. Able to tolerate moist substrates and a wide range of soil types, especially those observed in bogs or swamps, the suckering roots of this plant can help prevent coastal erosion. Unfortunately, they are also instrumental in the formation of potentially invasive dogwood stands.
Nonetheless, dogwood thickets can be remarkably important for pollinators and birds. Their inflorescences, which may last through summer, attract many insects. The fruits are a vital source of nutrients in winter, when many natural food sources become scarce. They are favored not only by birds but also by some mammals (e.g. rabbits, goats, beavers, sheep, elk).
Red Osier Dogwood Growth, Hardiness & Climate
Although C. sericea is highly adaptable, it thrives best in moist to lightly damp and loamy substrates. Its wild colonies are typically found in wetlands, specifically along the margins of rivers, lakes, and streams. It can thus perform quite well as an ornamental plant for the borders of water features or rain gardens. Its specialized stolon system provides it with a natural capacity to spread on its own. Keep this in mind when situating a mature plant outdoors.
Full sun exposure is key to bringing out this species’ best features. The leaves’ fall colors are more likely to be vibrant under bright and direct light. Likewise, the branches become increasingly vivid in fall and winter as the leaves fall off and they are exposed to light. Even young plants may begin to display winter color. Once they have become fully established, they can grow at a quick rate and may eventually have a full spread of about 8 – 12 feet (2.4 – 3.7 meters).
How to Plant Red Osier Dogwood
C. sericea is remarkably straightforward to propagate via cuttings or divisions. If you’d like to witness its growth from seed, you will need to be much more patient. Seeds can be collected from the berries of mature plants or purchased from reputable plant stores. Berries will have to be soaked overnight to ease the removal of their seeds. Make sure to remove all pulp and air dry the seeds before use. They can be spread outdoors, where they should naturally germinate the following spring.
Higher germination and plant establishment rates may occur if you cold stratify and sow the seeds in an indoor setup. The seeds should be stored for approx. 90 days, in a moistened bag with some sand or vermiculite, at 3 – 5˚C (37 – 41˚F). Aim to plant them in spring or when ambient temperatures are mild. Carefully distribute them onto the surface of a pre-moistened germination mix and cover them with a fine layer of more soil. Lightly cover the setup with a clear plastic sheet to prolong evaporation rates.
Once the seedlings are large enough to handle, you may transplant them into their own pots. Once they are tough enough to withstand outdoor elements, you can move them into their permanent spots. Conversely, hardwood cuttings can be directly planted outdoors. These should be around 4 – 6 inches long and collected from mature stems. Plant these around 2 – 3 inches deep in moistened soil. With consistent misting, they should be rooted in just 6 weeks.
How to Care for Red Osier Dogwood
To keep your dogwood shrub in good condition, it is highly advisable to prune it at least once every two years. This should be done before the growth period starts – preferably in February or March if you’re located in the northern hemisphere. To make room for new growth, aim to cut back the oldest stems first. Make sure to prune any diseased or damaged stems as well. This should help ensure that the fresh stems are healthy and have room to expand.
Red osier dogwood is highly susceptible to being colonized by pests and fungal diseases. To an extent, these should be kept at bay by regular pruning. Keep a close eye out for leaf miners, scale, canker, leaf spots, bagworms, and twig blight. Make sure to remove the affected branches before the disease spreads throughout the full shrub.
Note that fungal diseases may be caused by high humidity. Although this species favors moist conditions, it is averse to having its roots in standing water or being exposed to excessive rainfall and poor ventilation.
How to Winter Red Osier Dogwood
Cold hardy down to USDA zone 2, C. sericea need not be overwintered indoors. It is often favored by horticulturists for its winter features, which are basically its leafless stems and any leftover fruits. The branches do not typically die back as temperatures drop. Instead, they remain upright and sturdy in the absence of extremely harsh winds. As they are woody, they can tolerate being covered in frost.
To prepare dogwood shrubs for winter, it would be best to remove any traces of decaying leaves that may be trapped in their branches. Make sure to cut back stems with visible fungal disorders and remove any pests before they can reproduce. Healthy plants will naturally enter a dormant state once temperatures drop significantly. Come spring, they should begin to produce new stems and branches.
Is Red Osier Dogwood Invasive or Toxic?
Due to its popularity as an ornamental plant for winter interest, the red osier dogwood has been introduced into many temperate zones. In the US, where it is considered a native plant, it has spread by both natural and artificial means. In Europe, it is considered an emerging invasive species. Its capacity for vegetative spread, through the use of its suckering roots, makes it a highly competitive species in moist areas.
This dogwood shrub’s tolerance for remarkably cool winter conditions, coupled with its capacity to survive in submersion, has contributed to its widespread distribution. It is also able to spread by seed, which can quickly become established in areas with minimal substrate disturbance. Fortunately, it is not toxic to humans or animals. Instead, it is a vital food source when sources of nutrients become scarce.
Is Red Osier Dogwood Edible? Do Animals Eat it?
Although the juicy fruits of C. sericea are edible in their raw or cooked form, they are reputedly far from palatable. Their bitter and sour taste makes them an undesirable candidate for a casual snack in a wetland forest. They can, however, be mixed with other sweeter-tasting berries to create wine. Note that consumption of the berries on their own may trigger nausea.
Native Americans used the bark of red osier dogwood to create a medicinal concoction for a wide range of ailments. Depending on how it was prepared and used, the bark can supposedly serve as an astringent, stimulant, febrifuge, tonic, or painkiller.
Though the bitter taste of dogwood berries keeps them from being heavily harvested and consumed by humans, it fails to fend off birds. About 95 species of birds feed on the bitter berries in winter! Many small to large mammals in wetland regions browse the leaves and twigs of this species.
Where to Buy Red Osier Dogwood & Seeds? (UK & US)
Cornus sericea can be purchased as seeds or young shrubs from plant nurseries throughout its native range. It may be available in a number of award-winning cultivars, such as ‘Hedgerows Gold’, ‘Flaviramea’, and ‘Bud’s Yellow’.