Barking up the Wrong Tree

They say dog is man’s best friend – well how about dogwood is gardener’s best friend? I don’t mean the graceful dogwood trees, Cornus kousa or Cornus florida  – I wish I could say I was referring to them, but sadly no, we can’t grow these lovely trees in our zone 3, chinook-challenged climate. We can however, grow some splendid cultivars of our native Cornus sericea (red osier dogwood), and the closely related Cornus alba (Tatarian dogwood). I recall a recent quip from an out-of-province industry professional in reference to these…….he snorted, “That’s a dogwood? Where I come from dogwoods are trees.” Yeah, yeah, I know – we’re horticulturally deprived here. But no need to feel sorry for ourselves – the dogwood shrubs I speak of, though not as ornamental in flower, have special characteristics that set them apart from their arboreal counterparts. Not only are they extremely hardy in our fierce climate, they have a beauty all their own and offer it up year round.

Let’s take a walk through the seasons and see what these dogwoods have to offer

Winter Bark

Both species have colourful bark which is very showy in winter. C. sericea has dark red bark, C. alba has brighter red bark, and each have numerous cultivars presenting additional bark colours of green, yellow, coral and purple-black.  Indeed it is this trait that makes dogwood so desirable in Northern climes – our winters are long and it provides a bright spot in a dreary landscape. The branches are often used in seasonal container arrangements as well, since they hold their colour well when cut.

Cornus sericea (red osier dogwood) lines the banks of the Bow River, its massive root system preventing erosion, and its colourful stems brightening the winter landscape. Photo: Pat Gaviller

The pliable branches are also useful for various crafts – basketweaving for example. Dream catchers too, were traditionally made of red osier dogwood, which some considered to be sacred.

Colourful bark makes dogwood branches useful in other landscape applications – the detail in the viewing window on the left is made from dogwood which I harvested from one of my very mature Cornus sericea ‘Flavirimea’. I then had my friend and colleague, Greg Booth of Sawback Developments, fashion this Japanese-style gate for a client. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Since it is the younger branches that are the most colourful, keeping old branches pruned out will ensure good bark colour. Very old, untidy specimens can be ‘rejuvenated’ by pruning them to the ground. Your efforts will be rewarded with lush new growth the following year.

Spring Flowers and Summer Berries

All of the C. Sericea and C. Alba cultivars have delicate white flowers in spring. Some years they flower abundantly, other years more sporadically, and while the blooms can’t compete visually with those of Malus or Syringa, they are nonetheless suitably pretty. In late summer these pretty white flowers become pretty white berries, which are especially attractive against the changing foliage colour.

Dogwood berries provide food for many species of birds – too numerous to list here. Suffice it to say that if you want to attract birds to your yard, include a native dogwood or two in your plan.

Dogwood flowers, though not particularly showy, still have ornamental value in the landscape. Left: Cornus sericea. Photo: Pat Gaviller. Right: Cornus alba ‘Aurea’. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Cornus sericea: small white flower clusters become cream-coloured berries – stunning against the red fall foliage. Photos: Pat Gaviller

Foliage Colour All Season Long

Cornus sericea and Cornus alba contribute both texture and colour to the garden. Texturally they are medium-coarse – these coarser textures are desirable for providing moments of emphasis and contrast in the landscape. As for colour, there is increasing variety in available foliage colours – bright gold, bronze-green, variegated green and gold, variegated green and white, and of course basic green. With all these colours to choose from, the lowly dogwood shrub can make a real splash in your garden.

Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ has intense bright golden foliage – a real standout. Here it contrasts beautifully with the dark green of Syringa vulgaris and the rich wine-coloured Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Summer Wine’. With colour like this who needs flowers? Photo: Sue Gaviller

Cornus alba ‘Strawberry Daiquiri’ (left) has very white leaf margins and strawberry coloured bark, while Cornus alba ‘Cream Cracker’ has butter cream variegation and dark purple-red bark. Such yummy names aren’t they? Photos: Sue Gaviller

Cornus sericea ‘Silver & Gold’ has green and cream variegated leaves and bright yellow bark – an attractive addition to the landscape any time of year. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Dogwoods also have brilliant fall foliage colour – the red-barked cultivars turn varying shades of red, the yellow-barked cultivars turn golden and the variegated cultivars turn shades of peach, pink or orange.  These Cornus shrub species really do have something to offer in all four seasons – few plants have such versatility.

The bright red fall foliage of this small compact dogwood (which I suspect is Cornus sericea ‘Farrow’) looks stunning against the backdrop of a richly stained fence and the limestone boulder in the foreground. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Cornus alba ‘Cream Cracker’ in late summer, just beginning to show its fall colours. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Size Matters

C. sericea and C. alba species are quite large – 2 to 3 meters height and spread. This is great if you have lots of room, but if not, there are many cultivars bred specifically for the smaller yard. Cornus sericea ‘Farrow’ (Arctic Fire dogwood) is a compact bushy cultivar with lush green leaves and intense red stems, reaching about 1 meter tall and wide. Cornus sericea ‘Kelseyi’ is a cute little dwarf variety growing only about ½ metre. For variegated cultivars, the very pretty Cornus alba ‘Cream Cracker’ is a great choice for small yards with a height and spread of about 1 metre.

This client’s Northwest Calgary yard was one of the first designs in which I used Cornus alba ‘Cream Cracker’. I’ve been very happy with its performance – very little winterkill, bushy compact growth habit and beautiful warm variegated foliage has made it a great choice. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Dogwoods aren’t  picky about where you put them – I have 12 or 13 of them in my yard, numerous cultivars of both species, placed in every conceivable growing condition – shade, semi-shade, full sun, moist, dry, sheltered, exposed and several combinations thereof. I can’t say any particular specimen is doing markedly better than others – the one in full sun with supplemental water from the downspout has perhaps grown the fastest, but on the whole they’re all pretty happy.

So you see there’s a dogwood for everyone, for every site, and for every season. Indeed they are a gardener’s best friend.

Thank y’all for reading,
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

9 comments on “Barking up the Wrong Tree

  1. rjp says:

    Another great plant article Sue. Im afraid the deer that visit my yard also agree with your choice of dogwood!

    • Sue Gaviller says:

      Hi Ralph,

      Gotta love those deer eh? Cornus sericea is actually on numerous Deer Resistant Plant lists, including the very excellent website, But truthfully speaking, many acreage clients of mine can attest to the fact that deer do indeed eat dogwood. It may have something to do with the fact that we prune to encourage new growth which has more colourful bark – deer, and rabbits for that matter, really love tender new shoots on any plant. Hoisted by our own petard?

      Thanks as always for reading and for your comments,

  2. Anjali says:

    The older I get, the more I appreciate foliage over flowers. Thanks for illustrating the lovely array of dogwood options. I’ll have to make room for them in my garden next year.

    • Sue Gaviller says:

      Hi Anjali,

      It’s true that as gardeners mature we realize ‘it’s not all about the flowers’, and that a garden is more than merely a collection of blooms.

      Dogwoods are so versatile – they can be the stars or the back-up, depending on the particular cultivar you choose. Hope you find the perfect one for your garden!

      Thanks so much for reading,

  3. AVaughan says:

    We seem to have had some winter kill on our arctic fire dogwood and only half of the bush is filling out with leaves. The buds formed but no leaves. When do you recommend cutting back a dogwood? can it be done at this time of year? We are very new at this whole gardening thing 🙂 Thanks for your help!

    • Hi there,

      Dogwoods and many other trees/shrubs had a rough time this winter. To begin with, we had very cold temperatures very suddenly and quite early last fall – before most plants had time to enter dormancy. You probably noticed that leaves froze in place on trees and shrubs. The resulting tissue damage means many plants broke dormancy very late this spring, or not at all. In addition we had some very late cold and snow this spring which set things back further.

      So…….to answer your question – any branches that are still supple are likely still alive and may yet bud out. You could wait a bit longer to see what happens. However, dogwoods respond very well to pruning into live wood so at this point you could prune down to where you see live buds – as close to the bud junction as possible without cutting into it. They are pretty forgiving so don’t be shy or worry that you’ll hurt it. Just make sure your pruning shears are clean and you should do just fine. Your dogwood will reward you with a flush of healthy new growth in a few weeks.

      Good luck and thanks for reading,

  4. AVaughan says:

    Thanks so much for your comment! I will be patient as the branches still seem to be fine. I hope this message finds you doing ok up in Calgary!

    • You’re welcome and best of luck with your gardening endeavours this season.

      Thank-you for your kind wishes – it’s a bit surreal here in Calgary to be sure. Fortunately our house is well away from the flood zone, but I know many who’ve been greatly impacted – my heart goes out to all.

      Thanks again for reading,

  5. […] Barking up the Wrong Tree […]


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s