Some like it wet. Particularly if you live in the Pacific Northwest. Here, you wear your raindrops proudly. Having a soaked shirt is like sporting honorable stripes. And those rain deflection devices (umbrellas, right?), those are for the tourists and foreigners. However, put us in a situation with more than a few inches of snow and it’s a winter apocalypse, at least according to the local news stations. But I digress…
One of the locals perfectly content in the wetness is our native red twig, or red osier, dogwood (Cornus sericea syn. Cornus stolonifera). This is a relatively common shrub, or small tree, in low to mid elevation moist to wet sites. However, “common” really only describes its distribution and availability. Red twig dogwood is an exceptional plant offering year-round appeal, particularly showy in winter when the color of its branches are intensified to a glowing red to maroon. This coloration is strongest when the plants are in full sun and on the newer growth.
In springtime, attractive mid to dark green, veined leaves (similar to other dogwoods) are born and white flower clusters appear shortly thereafter (May in my yard – and technically they are an inflorescence, and more specifically a cyme) which the bees find irresistible. Sometimes these plants will rebloom sporadically throughout the year.
The flowers ripen into white berries, which can persist on the plant for quite some time depending on how often the birds come to dine. Many bird species eat the berries but the regulars in my yard are the robins and cedar waxwings. I especially appreciate any plant that will draw in the cedar waxwings.
As you can see by the pic above, another outstanding feature of this plant is its red to purple fall color. In the natural area behind our home there is a grove of mature specimens, which are a little more like small trees than shrubs, and each year I look forward to their fall show, which works wonderfully with the yellow fall color of the nearby pacific ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) and the evergreen slough sedges (Carex obnupta) at their feet.
I attribute the poor drainage, high water table and light, open shade conditions behind our home to the beautiful mass that’s back there, but red twig dogwood really is an irregularly adaptable plant, able to withstand summer drought for quite some time when established in the right soil, and also content in full sun to shade conditions. Just keep in mind that, like most other plants, when placed in more sun red twig dogwood will need more moisture and in full shade the flowering and fruiting will diminish and the leaves will grow larger and thinner to capture more light.
Red twig dogwood is also a great plant for the economical gardener, being inexpensive to incorporate into the garden as it grows easily, and quickly, from cuttings. Also, the epithet stolonifera from the scientific name refers to the stolons with which it can spread and multiply. New roots/plants can form when these low, horizontal branches come into contact with the soil, allowing them to form thickets.
You also can’t go too wrong on pruning these dogwoods. They can withstand severe pruning, and since the most vivid winter branch coloring is on new growth, most people prefer to prune them this way. It’s recommended that you only cut them down to the ground (technically about 4-6 inches from the ground) every 2 to 3 years, but this could depend on how vigorous the plant is. Now, late winter, is the time to do this, right before the new spring growth comes. I think the plants look best when pruned this way, as opposed to doing light cutback pruning. Or you could just remove a few of the oldest main stems down to the base each year, so you aren’t left with a hole in your garden for a season. I’m okay with waiting for a season, but this is an indispensable plant, filling a niche in the garden.