Dogwoods splash eye-popping color onto winter landscapes
Native and European ornamental multi-stemmed dogwood, also called creek dogwood, offers both four-season glory and wildlife habitat.
With flamboyantly colored bare stems, they are at their most showy in winter when color is at a minimum, allowing them to really “step out” into the landscape. These stems appear illuminated, especially under dark gloomy skies or during rain.
Summer brings luxuriant green or wildly variegated leaves topped by elegant white, horizontally held flowers that pollinators love. Late summer sees the non-flagging plants decorated with white berries that are favorites of birds and flower arrangers alike. The fall leaves of many species and varieties glow with deep ruby or grape tones.
Tolerant of many site conditions, these dogwoods are very rewarding plants for your garden and are too little known and used. Our native creek dogwoods (Cornus sericea), are deciduous, multi-stemmed, North American native shrubs that grow beside streams and other waterways. They are widely adapted and distributed and are found throughout the western states, across the northern portion of the U.S. and across Canada.
The western states’ creek dogwood is named Cornus sericea sssp. sericea. They can form reddish dense thickets in shade situations or a fringe of leafy growth and brilliant red stems in bright sunlight. The European species come from similar environments. Tolerant of intense heat and cold, periodic inundation and some drought, these dogwoods have application in a variety of garden situations.
There are a number of outstanding selections and cultivars as well as locally selected native species. Please note they differ markedly in growth structure and culture than the tree-type dogwoods such as Cornus florida and Cornus kousa.
In wild areas, the native species form a red haze along damp, dark roads or a head-turning exclamation of crimson on sunny banks along rivers. Creek dogwood, ornamental selections, and cultivars are even more brilliant and pronounced in hue. Some have flaming crimson, fluorescent yellow or glowing salmon orange stems that make for striking landscape features. They can be displayed in your garden as single specimens, in groups or used as a hedge. When planting as a group, for the best display make sure to leave some space in between individual plants.
Although they are adapted to growth along waterways, they are far more tolerant of drought than tree dogwoods such as Cornus florida and Cornus kousa. Regular garden watering schedules are enough to keep them happy. They are also good candidates for rain gardens since they tolerate flooding and poor drainage.
Creek dogwoods thrive on deep soils with fairly high fertility and benefit from mulch. Many can be grown in shade as well as sun. Highly adapted, they thrive in the cooler climates of our area as well as hot-summer climates like Sacramento, and in heat and cold like eastern Oregon or Washington.
Creek or ornamental dogwoods stems or shoots are excellent for floral arrangements both in winter and summer. In summer, the variegated varieties offer good filler for arrangements. When berries are present, these add another dimension to bouquets. In winter, those with colorful stems make striking, long-lasting features in clear glass vases.
Creek dogwoods require specific pruning to bring out their best attributes. Much of the time they are mistakenly made into individual little balls or large rectangles. The vibrant stem color comes from new growth. The old wood becomes brown and unappealing, declines in vigor over three to four years and will die after about five years. As creekside or riparian plants, they are adapted to breakage by periodic flooding and so readily re-sprout from the base or stumps. They thrive with renewing growth. To accomplish this, some people prune the whole plant down to about 6 inches every three to four years, effectively pollarding it. Other people thin out 1/4 to 1/3 of the oldest growth every year to constantly renew plants. Stems can then be thinned to open up the plant.