Vol. 19 Issue 4, Winter 2014
By Julie Borneman, Watermark Woods Native Plant Nursery
When planning winter landscaping, most of us rely on evergreen shrubs to add interest. However, there is more to winter interest than evergreen foliage. The Red Twig Dogwood, also called Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea), offers something new every season, including winter.
Cornus sericea highlights spring with its clusters of white blossoms followed by small white berries. Over the summer months it has a loose, multi-stem form to support our familiar dogwood leaves. In autumn Red Twig kicks things up with stunning burgundy foliage. But winter is when the real fireworks happen. Showy red branches are revealed when leaves fall and provide a striking contrast in winter snow. Branches can also add height and color indoors to floral arrangements.
This Piedmont native shrub thrives in moist, well-drained soils with partial shade. Cornus sericea is a riparian species, which is often seen growing along stream banks and vernal pools. The Red Twig Dogwood can also adapt to full sun exposures or drier habitats, but added stress can leave the shrub susceptible to canker, blight and insect damage.
Red Twig Dogwoods can grow 6 to 12 feet with a similar spread. However, annual pruning can help control the size. This is a hearty shrub, which can handle being cut to the ground each spring and still grow to a significant height in a single growing season. The root system spreads readily through stolons and can form dense populations. That makes this shrub a good candidate for erosion control.
Cornus sericea isn’t just a pretty face in the landscape; it also has a history of providing useful materials. Native Americans had many uses for this versatile plant. They used the bark as an additive in tobacco and dyes and also wove the stems into baskets. The Latin for this genus, Cornus, meaning horn, is appropriate since these hard branches were useful in making tool handles. With its rich history and eye-catching form, this shrub is a conversation starter as well as an attractive addition to the garden for many reasons.
Red Twig Dogwood doesn’t just appeal to humans. Birds and small mammals love the berries and the leaves alone provide for over 100 species of butterflies and moths. It is a larval host plant to the Spring Azure butterfly, Celastrina ladon. This wide variety of visitors makes it an ideal addition to a nature lover’s backyard.
With four seasons of interest, the Red Twig Dogwood is a must-have for any native plant collector. As colder temperatures arrive and you make your spring planting list, be sure to reserve a prime space for this top-performing native species.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, www.wildflower.org
Mt. Cuba Center, www.mtcubacenter.org
United States Botanical Gardens, www.usbg.gov
Virginia Cooperative Extension publications and educational resources, www.pubs.ext.vt.edu
Tallamy, Doug, Bringing Nature Home, April 2009, Timber Press.