Few people recognize the red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) as a relative of the common flowering dogwood. Instead of the small white flowers being crowded together in a button surrounded by four white bracts as in the flowering dogwood, the red osier flowers grow in open clusters.
Found along streams and pond margins throughout most of North America, red osier often forms dense thickets that provide important browse for deer, moose and elk. This shrub or small tree is also known as C. sericea.
I first discovered red osier dogwood in the middle of winter. Walking through a snowy forest Leonard and I noticed the bright red branches of small trees contrasting sharply with the dark trunks and twigs of leafless trees. I had no idea what this striking plant was. I picked a few twigs and searched under the snow until I found a few disintegrating leaves. The remains of the leaves reminded me of dogwood leaves, but only after I checked the identification keys back at home did I realize that indeed these cheery branches in the middle of winter were a red osier dogwood.
A shrub or small tree that spreads freely, the stems of red osier are round, smooth and bright red. The lower branches often lie on the ground where they rapidly root. The opposite, deciduous leaves are oval with a sharp point. Five to seven prominent, parallel veins converge at the leaf tip. Dogwood leaves are very characteristic.
Red osier flowers have four white to greenish petals and stamens in dense, terminal clusters (cymes). The fruits are small, berry-like drupes (fleshy, one-seeded fruit where the seed has a stone covering – cherries, peaches, for example) that are very bitter and inedible. A few aboriginal people did eat red osier berries. I nibbled a few and decided that I would most certainly need to be starving before eating very many.
Native Americans and early explorers and settlers dried the inner bark of red osier and used it as a tobacco substitute, either alone or in mixtures. A tincture or tea brewed from the bark was taken as a medicinal tonic by the Salish Indians.
These specimens were photographed along the Pit River (Shasta County CA) and near the Williamson River Trail upstream from Collier State Park in Oregon.
Red osier dogwood is a plant that is beautiful and provides interest throughout the year.