Roy and Charlotte Lukes: Red-osier Dogwood

Few native shrubs in northeastern Wisconsin are as easy to identify in the winter landscape, even from a distance, as the red dogwood. Their crimson red stems visually announce their beauty along practically every lake shore, in moist thickets, in marshes and along the edges of swamps.

The name red-osier dogwood is what many people call this handsome plant. Strangely, osier refers primarily to willows, but apparently there is enough similarity between the two to have named this favorite native shrub as they have.

Seldom does a shrub possess both beauty and great food value for wildlife during all seasons. The list is long and includes wood ducks, ruffed grouse, bluebirds, cardinals, flickers, evening grosbeaks, robins, wood thrushes, cedar waxwings, raccoons, foxes and chipmunks.

Deer are very fond of the tender new twigs, especially during the cold months. One look at the tips of the dogwood plants that have been partially eaten will tell you if it has been by a deer. They lack the incisors for making clean cuts as do the cottontails. The deer virtually rip the twigs off the plant, leaving very jagged ends.

Roy Lukes

Photo by Roy Lukes.

If you hike into a large deer-used territory where red-osier dogwood ordinarily grows and find none of these shrubs, you are pretty safe to assume that the deer population is considerably out of control. Where plenty of red dogwoods grow naturally, there the deer are not hurting for winter food simply because the so-called carrying capacity of the land (for the deer and other wildlife) is in good balance.

Common and scientific names of plants and their derivation can be interesting and somewhat confusing at times. The plant’s genus name, Cornus, stems from the word “cornu,” a horn. This is in allusion to the hardness of the wood. A friend living in southern Indiana presented me, on my birthday, with a beautiful knife-sharpening stone in a handsome wooden case that he fashioned from the wood of the flowering dogwood. How I have used and treasured that gift through the years.

What impresses me about this wood is its incredible fine grain, hardness and the lovely sheen that develops from using and handling it a lot. For many years the hardwood spindles in spinning mills in the South were made from the wood of the flowering dogwood tree.

How the word dogwood came into being varies from one region to another. One could almost consider it an insult to have to associate a beautiful plant group with mangy dogs of years ago. However, that is exactly how the dogwoods got their name in at least one area. A decoction, made from the bark of the bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), was commonly used in England to wash dogs infected with the mange.

The bloodtwig dogwood of Europe was also responsible for another version of the term dogwood. European butchers of years ago made skewers from the wood of this plant. The tree was called skewerwood and also “dagwood” from the Old English “dagge,” referring to a dagger or sharply pointed object.

And so there may be little connection after all between dogs and dogwood. Take your pick!

The species name of red dogwood, stolonifera (stow-lon-IF-er-a), comes from the fact that it is stoloniferous, sending out runners or lower branches which root and develop into new growth. Looking over several acres of these close-growing brilliant twigged shrubs easily leads one to assume that not only are they growing in an ideal environment but that the plants also have an unusually dependable method of reproducing.

In addition to enjoying its splendid red twigs of winter we also marvel at its habit of blossoming intermittently throughout the summer and early fall. Look closely at one of the shrubs during these two seasons and you should be able to see buds, flowers and fruit in its various stages of ripening – all on the same plant.

Few other plant groups include herbs, shrubs and trees as does this notable family. A common characteristic of all three forms are the leaves. For the most part, with the exception of the alternate-leaved or pagoda dogwood of this region, the leaves are opposite, oval in shape, pointed and lack marginal teeth. Veins curve gracefully outward from the center of the leaf toward the margins.

Dogwood flowers, in parts of four, lack petals and instead have white to creamy-white sepals. Even the flashy flowering dogwood trees of the West and Southeast display large showy sepals, which nearly everyone thinks are petals. The actual flowers, in the center of the four sepals, are tiny and outwardly don’t even resemble flowers until one takes a very close look.

The same applies to the North Country’s lovely herb, the Canada dogwood or bunchberry, Cornus canadensis. Go out of your way to learn the dogwoods. Their fall colors, leaves, four-parted flowers, clusters of whitish fruit and bright red winter twigs all help to make this one of the most loved and important wildlife families in America.