Cornus sericea

Red Osier Dogwood

Cornus sericea, Red Osier Dogwood

Red Osier Dogwood in Bloom
Photo © by Earl J.S. Rook

Flora, fauna, earth, and sky...
The natural history of the northwoods


  • Cornus, from the Latin, cornu, "horn, antler"
  • sericea, from the Greek, serikos (serikos), "of silk"
  • Common Name from the brightly colored twigs and branches
  • Other common names include Red Twig Dogwood, Western Dogwood, American Dogwood, Redstem Dogwood, Red Dogwood, Kinnikinnik, Squawbush, Creek Dogwood, California Dogwood, Red-stemmed Cornel, Redbrush, Gutter Tree, Red Willow, harts rouges, Poison Dogwood, Shoemack, Waxberry Cornel, Dogberry Tree.


  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
      • Class Magnoliopsida, the Dicotyledons
      • Subclass Rosidae, the Roses
        • Order Cornales, the Dogwoods
          • Family Cornaceae, the Dogwoods
            • Genus Cornus, the Dogwoods
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 501637
  • Also known as Cornus stolonifera,Cornus alba var. occidentalis, Cornus occidentalis, Cornus alba var. baileyi, Cornus alba var. californica, Cornus alba var. interior, Cornus alba var. coloradense, Cornus baileyi, Cornus instolonea, Cornus interior, Cornus sanguinea, Svida stolonifera, Cornus pubescens, Cornus californica, Suida interior, Ossea interior, Suida stolonifera var. riparia, Cornus instoloneus, Cornus nelsoni, Cornus amomum
  • Two main groups of Cornus are "red line" dogwoods, with showy bracts below the flowers and red fruit, and "blue line" dogwoods, without bracts and blue or white fruit. Red Osier Dogwood is widespread and variable; similar populations have been considered variously as separate but interbreeding species, subspecies, and varieties.


  • A deciduous, many-stemmed shrub 3'-19' tall.
  • ¼, ½, ¾, º, é
  • Leaves opposite with prominent lateral veins that curve toward the tip and smooth edges.
  • Stems and twigs dark red when young, gradually fading to grey-green, becoming red again in the fall and winter.
  • Roots
  • Flowers small and white, borne in a flat-topped cluster and, unlike many dogwoods, there are no large, showy bracts.
    • Sepals
    • Petals
    • Stamens
    • Pistils
    • Ovary superior (within blossom) inferior (below flower)
  • Fruit berrylike, white or lead colored at maturity.
  • Seed
  • Tolerates extremely cold temperatures (laboratory temperatures as low as -320º F). Avoids freezing injury caused by ice forming within living protoplasm by having freezable water frozen extracellularly. The factors that seem to affect cold acclimation the most are low temperatures, short days, water stress, and the developmental stage of the plant. Far red light, characteristic of the long twilights at high latitudes, and short day length promote cold acclimation. Water-stressed plants have an increased tolerance of freezing and increase their freezing point. In plants exposed to short days, tissue changes occur that reduce the plant's ability to take up water and simultaneously increase water loss so that the plant partially dehydrates even when water is plentiful.


  • Identifiable as
  • Distinguished from
  • Field Marks


  • Alaska to Labrador and Newfoundland, south to Virginia, Kansas, northern Mexico, and California. Common in the northeastern and midwestern US in previously glaciated areas; south of these where site conditions are favorable.


  • A characteristic species of swamps, low meadows, and riparian zones; also found in forest openings, open forest understories, and along forest margins.
  • Southern limits appear to be determined by high temperatures.
  • Prefers rich, moist soils with pH range of 5.5 to 7.0. High levels of mineral nutrients needed for vigorous growth.
  • Tolerates flooding and, consequently, is found on floodplains and wetlands and is often one of the first shrubs to invade wet meadows.
  • Seeds germinate above water level, but after several years growth, the plants can live with the roots submerged in water for most of the growing season. Plants on such wet sites are found in mineral rich swamps or fens and not in nutrient poor sphagnum bogs.
  • An early to mid successional species that is supressed in shade and is not normally found in the understory of closed canopy forests. It is found in the understory of mixed open forests.
  • Needs moderate to full sunlight. Its natural occurrence in full sunlight may be facilitated by its growth in wet situations where it encounters no water stress.


  • Can sprout from surviving roots or stolons and from the base of aerial stems following fire but may be killed by severe fires which cause extended heating of the upper soil.
  • Considered to be a semi-fire-tolerant, seed-banking species. Light fires which partially remove the duff stimulate germination of buried seed.
  • Generally increases following fire, and may invade a recently burned area from adjacent unburned areas.


  • Trees: Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
  • Shrubs: Alders (Alnus spp.), Gooseberries (Ribes spp.), Wood's Rose (Rosa woodsii), Willows (Salix spp.).
  • Herbs: Thistles (Cirsium spp.), Horsetails (Equisetum spp.),
  • Ground Covers: Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis)
  • Mammals: Food and cover for white-tailed deer, moose, cottontail rabbits, snowshoe hares, and numerous birds, including grouse. Fruit also eaten by mice and other mammals. Deer mice, meadow voles, and other small rodents feed on the young stems and bark. Beavers use it for food and to build dams and lodges. Particularly important to moose in the winter; it is also used in the summer and in the fall when leaves that have escaped frost are particularly favored. In Minnesota, moose use some during the summer, but primary use is in the fall after the stems redden; white-tailed deer browse it in April and May. Provides valuable cover for birds and other small animals, especially where it grows in thickets
  • Birds: Fruit is low in sugar so it is initially less attractive to wildlife and less inclined to rot than other fruits, staying on the plant through the winter and availabile when other fruits are gone. Eaten by songbirds, grouse, quail, partridge, ducks, crows, and other birds.


  • Long slim stems were used by Indians for basket weaving and are still used by present-day crafters.
  • Indians and early settlers smoked the inner bark, stem scrapings, and leaves, which have a slightly narcotic effect.
  • Indians also used an extract as an emetic for treating fevers and coughs and obtained dyes from the bark and roots.


  • A popular landscaping shrub, with many cultivars introduced.


  • Sexually by seed
  • Flowers
  • Assexually by
  • Natural regeneration both sexual and asexual.
  • Flowers self-sterile, requiring cross pollination. Pollinators include the honey bee, bumble bee, solitary bee, and possibly beetles, flies, and butterflies.
  • Seed dispersal primarily by songbirds, although other animals including bears, mice, grouse, quail, partridges, and even ducks may eat the fruit and disperse seeds. Germination rates increase after passage through a black bear's digestive tract.
  • The seeds may be stored in seedbanks.
  • Individual plants generally first bear fruit at 3 to 4 years of age, but older plants are more prolific.
  • On good sites forms dense thickets through vegetative reproduction. Spreads by layering when the lower stems touch or lie along the ground and root at the nodes. Plants may also produce new shoots from the roots and new branches from the bases of dying branches.


  • By seed, following cold stratification. Seed will remain viable in cold storage 4-8 years. Seeds have dormant embryos and need cold stratification for 1-3 months. Occasionally, hard seed coats require scarification.
  • Cuttings root easily without treatment and can be directly planted providing sufficient moisture is available.


  • Hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average minimum annual temperature -40ºF)
  • Cultural Requirements
    • Sun
    • Soil
    • Water
    • Spacing
    • Fertilization
  • Size 12"-18"W x 12"-18"H
  • Growth rate
  • Good for
  • Cultivars include
    • 'Alleman's Compact', a small form, to 4'
    • 'Flaviramea', medium size with bright, yellow twigs
    • 'Hedgerows Gold', with gold & green variegated leaves
    • 'Isanti', a smaller cultivar, to 5'
    • 'Kelseyi', a mounding dwarf form, to 18"
    • 'Silver & Gold', a yellow twig form with creamy white variegation
    • 'Variegata', a typical red twig form with creamy white variegation
  • Cultivars and species available by mail order from specialty suppliers or at local nurseries
  • An attractive landscaping plant, with deep red stems and twigs for winter color, many creamy white flowers in the spring followed by attractive white fruits, and spectacular maroon fall leaves.
  • Once established, is drought tolerant and, for gardeners in rural areas, less palatable to white-tailed deer than many other ornamental shrubs.
  • Recommended for rehabilitating moist sites within its range, it is well adapted to disturbed sites, excellent at stabilizing soil, easy to establish, and grows rapidly. It needs fresh, aerated water to establish and may be particularly useful in stabilizing eroding streambanks.
  • Rooted cuttings or nursery-grown seedlings are easily established on moist, well-drained soils and grow rapidly.



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Last updated on 29 August, 2004