CONNELLY: Dogwood a great shrub for landscaping, wildlife | Chronicle
I’ll admit that my favorite shrub is mugwort. After that, I claim several other shrub species as favorites, and at the top of that list is red osier dogwood. This dogwood is a visually appealing shrub, especially in winter when its red stems contrast with the brilliant white of the fresh snow.
Of the around 50 dogwood species worldwide, 16 come from the USA. Red osier dogwood is our most widely distributed native dogwood found in most of the United States except for the southern Great Plains and the Southeast. Other names include Red Willow, Redstem Dogwood, Redtwig Dogwood, American Dogwood, and Western Dogwood.
Red osier dogwood is a spreading, multi-stemmed shrub that grows 6 to 12 feet tall and has showy red branches. This dogwood produces flat clusters of creamy white flowers that develop into umbrella-shaped clusters of small white berries. The oval leaves contain prominent veins that curl slightly to trace the shape of the leaf edge. The autumn leaves of the dogwood are particularly colorful. Red osier is a showy landscaping plant with foliage and bright red stems.
The most reliable way to identify a dogwood is to carefully break the petiole (petiole) and slowly pull each half apart to reveal a thread-like white pith. Mark is part of the fiber system that gives a stem its strength and flexibility. Dogwood pith has an unusual rubbery elasticity. Red willow dogwood prefers moist soil and grows in sun or shade. For the best color (autumn leaves and winter branches), it should be planted in a sunny spot. The spread and appearance of winter can be controlled by regularly clipping the shrub to the ground to encourage new growth.
Red willow dogwood forms bird-friendly thickets – locally warblers, goldfinches, Cassin’s finches and titmouse can often be found in its branches. Butterflies are also drawn to the flower nectar. This shrub thrives in moist soils on the banks of many trout streams. Its ability to spread underground makes it a great choice for erosion control.
Dogwood is also an important winter game species. The white-tailed deer that hang around our property are clearly nibbling on their tender shoots and sometimes go straight to our house to poke around a dogwood that grows next to our back deck. Unfortunately, both the dogwood and I (the shrub’s owner) enthusiastically rub their antlers against dogwood branches, severely damaging the shrub even though it has not yet been killed.
Dogwood has been used medicinally for many years; The bark is rich in tannins, so the bark and leaves have been used to treat pain, fever, back pain, dizziness, weakness, excessive sweating, and incontinence.
Red osier dogwood was one of several plants that Native Americans called “kinnikinik” because of their use as a tobacco substitute. The inner bark of young stems was split and scraped into threads and roasted over a fire before being mixed with real tobacco. An edible plant expert reported that red wicker can be viewed as fragrant and pungent, potentially causing a feeling of drowsiness. He recommended its use in moderation.
For centuries, people have used the hard wood of dogwood handles in wicker, wicker, farm implements, arrow shafts, and web shuttles. The word dogwood is a variation of the Scandinavian term “dag” which means skewer (for the hardened sticks used to roast meat). While the word has nothing to do with our canine companions, it nonetheless encourages the old but still humorous botanical joke: How do you tell if a shrub is a dogwood? Through its bark, of course!
If you’re thinking of adding shrubs to your home landscape, you can’t go wrong with a red osier or two. Don’t forget how much deer also like the shrub and consider this issue before planting.
Jack Connelly has lived in Bingham County for over 40 years. He is an avid nature lover and has hiked, camped, hunted, and fished in much of the United States as well as parts of Europe and Asia. Connelly worked as a biologist for the Fish and Game Division in Idaho for over 30 years. He is now retiring with his wife Cheryl and raising chickens and bird dogs at their Blackfoot home.