Dogwood - A Plant for all Seasons
Article: Sarah Coulber
Dogwood - A Plant for all Seasons
No matter where you live in Canada, chances are there is a dogwood for you. Visually appealing and magnets for wildlife, these plants are bound to please both the gardener and naturalist in you.
There is only one genus of dogwood in Canada — Cornus — but its species come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some dogwood shrubs are loosely spreading while others are more compact and suitable for borders or disguising some unwanted feature around the house. All are great for mixing with other plants. Then there are the small dogwood trees whose graceful shapes and stunning flowers could mix with other plants or stand alone. Dogwoods even come as low-growing herbaceous plants — perfect as groundcovers.
In general, our native dogwoods have four-season appeal. With spring come flowers, sometimes showy, sometimes fragrant. Summer brings berries that contrast nicely with the leaves. Autumn leaves are eye-catching, with shades of red and orange and, for some species, a late show of bright berries. For one species, at least, snowy winter affords a stunning contrast of bright red branches against the white snow.
What's in a Name?
The origin of the name dogwood is anyone's guess, but two likely theories have been proposed. The first refers to a European species of dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) that was used for making skewers, or daggers, and would have been referred to as dag, dague, or dagge (dagger) in old English. The second theory is based on the reported use of the same species for washing mangy dogs. As for Cornus, it is Latin for “horn” and likely refers to the hardness of the wood.
Dogwoods have proven to be extremely invaluable to wildlife and humans alike. Shrubby species stabilize slopes and shores, protecting them from erosion. Their branches provide shelter for land and water animals. Dogwood flowers provide nectar to pollinating insects and then become fruit that is sought after by birds and mammals. Even the buds, twigs, and leaves of dogwood are munched on occasionally by local wildlife, although usually not enough to seriously damage the plant.
Depending on where you live, you may look forward to one or many of these visitors to your garden if you plant their favorite dogwood: spruce and ruffed grouse, yellow-bellied sapsucker, wild turkey, woodpeckers (downy, hairy, red-bellied, pileated), great-crested flycatcher, eastern kingbird, tree swallow, thrushes (Swainson's, wood, hermit), American catbird, brown thrasher, cedar waxwing, red-eyed vireo, pine warbler, northern cardinal, white-throated sparrow, evening grosbeak, purple finch, eastern cottontail, chipmunk, white-footed mouse, beaver, black bear, white-tailed deer, and moose.
As with the foliage of most shrubs and trees, the dogwood’s foliage provides important shelter for perching and nesting. Donald Stokes noted that grey dogwood seemed a favorite nesting spot of local birds such as mockingbirds, catbirds, and chipping sparrows.
This hard wooded plant has also attracted human interest. Flowering dogwood, in particular, proved suitable for making bowls, pipes, mallets, golf clubs, and tool handles. Its powdered bark was made into toothpaste and the root bark provided a scarlet dye. Aboriginal people also used red osier dogwood: the bark was smoked in pipes or used to make red dye and the branches were used to make baskets. Dogwoods were also valued for their healing properties — bunchberry for cold and colic remedies; pagoda dogwood for treating sore eyes; and red osier dogwood for treating ailments relating to digestion, eyes, and fever.
(Caution: We are not recommending the use of these plants for medicinal or food purposes. Many plants are poisonous or harmful if eaten or used externally. The information on food and medicinal value is added for interest only. This information has been gathered from books and its accuracy has not been tested.)
If you are hoping to encourage your plants in their reproductive efforts, you're in luck. Growing from seed is not very difficult and some species are very obliging with cuttings. Collect and clean berries, separating the seed from the pulp, and plant immediately. Take softwood tip cuttings in the summer, treat with a rooting compound, and plant in a flat for the winter. Shrubby dogwoods that sucker, like the red osier, will propagate from hardwood. Near the end of winter, but before the buds swell, cut a piece long enough to include at least three pairs of buds and place the cut end in soil or water deep enough to cover two of the bud sets. William Cullina of the New England Wild Flower Society recommends starting shrubby species in wet to moderately dry ground and in full sun for dense growth and strong twig colour.
Dogwoods have varied needs, although they tend to prefer sun to partial shade. Some species — such as bunchberry and flowering and pagoda dogwoods — enjoy slightly acidic soil. Most dogwoods enjoy moist soil and grow naturally along the edge of woods or shores. However, some, like the grey and round-leaved dogwoods, tolerate or even thrive in poor soil. All benefit from compost and leaf mould.
The bright red of red osier dogwood stems can fade in the summer months. To encourage bright red new growth, cut back the oldest stems (above a set of buds) in late winter or early spring before the leaves appear.
Flowering dogwoods (C. florida) have had some difficulty with the anthracnose fungus Discula destructiva, also called dogwood blight, which can kill part or, rarely, all of the tree. Symptoms include dieback on the branches in the early summer with dried leaves on twigs. The healthier your trees, the more easily they will be able to ward off this fungus. Keep them healthy by giving them a sunny spot, watering deeply (at ground level) during dry spells, mulching around the trees without touching the trunks, and providing plenty of compost.
Some Canadian Species
Northern Dwarf Cornel
Red-panicled dogwood, Grey dogwood
Red osier dogwood
Pagoda dogwood, Alternate-leaf dogwood
Images of flowering dogwood courtesy of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Ardmore, Oklahoma. Visit their Web site at www.noble.org, specifically the Plant Image Gallery. All other species images by Sarah Coulber, with the exception of the bunchberry image, which is by Jim Robertson.
References include The Natural History of Wild Shrubs and Vines by Donald W. Stokes and Weed of the Woods — Small Trees and Shrubs of the Eastern Forest by Glen Blouin.
Native plants add beauty to the garden and provide food for wildlife. Growing them can save both time and money. To learn more about growing native plants in your garden, visit our Get Growing section.