Adding Some Year-Round Interest in the Garden with Red Twig Dogwood
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 25, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Winter is where the vibrant red twig dogwoods (Cornus sericea) excel as they liven an otherwise drab landscape. Winter finds this shrub standing in bright contrast against a fresh snowfall, and winter is when the colorful red twig dogwood is a constant reminder that the additional colors of spring will indeed be coming.
Red twig dogwoods are incredibly easy to grow and thrive in almost any soil (including heavy clay) as long as they are planted in a consistently moist but well-drained area in full sun or light shade. Hardiness is from USDA Zone 4a to Zone 8b. They are not even fussy about pH, and will tolerate soils from mildly acidic (pH 5.1) to mildly alkaline(pH 8.5). Typically they will grow to 6 feet tall, maybe a bit more, and the only maintenance required is occasional pruning. In early spring you may prune up to 1/3 of the branch length, and you should occasionally remove any old brown woody stems from the center of the plant. The brightest winter color comes from the new stems.
Propagation of this shrub is easily accomplished by dividing the rootball. It can also be propagated by cuttings (softwood, semi-hardwood or hardwood), by grafting, and by layering. They are often used for stream bank protection, windbreaks, slope stabilization and of course, ornamental.
There are slight variations of the stem colors in this red twig dogwood shrub, depending on cultivars. There is also a yellow twig dogwood that has bright yellow stems in winter. Stems and peeled bark of the various colored stemmed dogwoods, sometimes called red willow, are used in basketweaving because they are both colorful and pliable.
Native Americans smoked the inner bark (mixed with tobacco) in sacred pipe ceremonies, and used it in tanning and drying hides. The stems were used in arrow-making, and other tools. The peeled bark was used to make a dye, and peeled stems were used as toothbrushes. The Chippewa made a bark infusion to treat poison ivy although the bark is seldom used in modern herbalism.
The small white berries of the red twig dogwood are bitter and tart, but were still eaten by many tribes. They were gathered in fall and a few eaten fresh. Most were dried, sometimes mashed, and stored or mixed with other fruits like chokecherries and Saskatoons in cakes.
An oil obtained from the seed burns well and can be used in lighting.
 http://www.gardenguides.com/plants/plantguides/shrubs/plantguide.asp?symbol=COSE16, Their Source: USDA, NRCS, PLANTS Database, plants.usda.gov.
 Grieve. A Modern Herbal. Penguin 1984 ISBN 0-14-046-440-9
Photo Credits: Thanks to Gabrielle (twig close-up) and langbr (flowering photo) for their photos from the PlantFiles. The other photos are by the author.
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