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How to Grow Red Twig Dogwood, a Native Plant, for Winter Interest

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

how-to-grow-red-twig-dogwood-for-winter-interest

If you are looking for a shrub that has four season interest, look no further than the red twig dogwood. In the spring, it sports white flowers. The flowers turn into waxy white berries during the summer. Then in the fall, the foliage turns from green into purple. The winter is when you will really appreciate this shrub. The leaves drop and the bright red stems are revealed. Some cultivars have yellow stems if you like a little variety.

A "yellow" red twig dogwood

A "yellow" red twig dogwood

What is Red Twig Dogwood?

As the name implies, red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea) is related to dogwood trees (C. florida). It is a shrub native to North America where it grows in wet marshy areas such as the banks of lakes and streams. Growing 6 to 9 feet tall and spreading 8 to 12 feet, it is a multi-stemmed shrub which spreads by suckering. Thanks to its dense root mass and liking for damp areas, it is often used to stabilize stream banks.

Native Americans had many uses for red twig dogwood. They used the berries to stop bleeding and to treat colds. The red bark was used as a dye. The inner bark was mixed with other plant matter and smoked like tobacco.

Cluster of Flowers

Cluster of Flowers

How to Grow Red Twig Dogwood

Red twig dogwood is hardy in zones 3 through 8. It grows well in wet areas and is perfect for rain gardens. The plants prefer full sun but can tolerate a little afternoon shade. Bloomtime is May through June. The flowers are tiny, white and fragrant. They are so insignificant that the shrub is not grown for its flowers unlike its cousin the dogwood tree with its big showy spring blossoms. The flowers are borne in clusters which then become clusters of waxy white berries that are beloved by birds.

Cluster of Berries

Cluster of Berries

How to Prune Red Twig Dogwood

The youngest branches have the brightest red color. As they age, the color dulls until the oldest stems are brown. You will need to prune regularly, usually every two years, to keep your shrubs bright red.

Pruning should be done when the plants are dormant in February and March. It’s also a good time to prune because the leaves are gone and you can get a good look at your shrubs to determine where to prune. Always prune away any dead or diseased branches. Cut the oldest largest stems down to the ground leaving younger stems. Don’t worry. New stems will grow in the spring and reveal their bright color in the fall. If there are no young stems, cut the large stems back to 18 to 24 inches. In the spring when the bush resume their growth, new stems will grow from the old stems where you have cut them.

Pruning your shrubs is actually good for them. It stimulates new healthy growth.

Older stems are duller in color.  The oldest stems are brown.

Older stems are duller in color. The oldest stems are brown.

How to Grow Red Twig Dogwood From Cuttings

Red twig dogwood is as easy to propagate as it is easy to grow. Most gardeners propagate by hardwood cuttings. Hardwood cuttings are cuttings made from mature branches. You can test the maturity by trying to bend the branches. If they are rigid and don’t bend, they are mature and can be used for hardwood cuttings.

Make 4 to 6 inch cuttings from the mature branches. Dip the cut tips in rooting hormone and bury the stems halfway in a container filled with pre-moistened soil. For instance, bury a 4 inch cutting 2 inches deep or a 6 inch cutting 3 inches deep. Place the containers in a shady sheltered area and keep the soil moist. Occasional misting is also recommended to keep the cuttings moist until they have rooted which should occur in six weeks. You can check for roots by lightly tugging on the stem. If there is resistance, roots have formed.

Like seedlings, grow your cuttings in light shade, keeping them well watered, during their first summer. In the late summer, you can begin acclimating them to full sun. In the fall, they can be transplanted into their permanent spot in your garden.

How to Grow Red Twig Dogwood From Seed

You can also grow red twig dogwood from seed. Harvest and soak some berries overnight. The following day, remove and wash the seeds. Plant the seeds ½ inch deep in containers and moisten the soil. Cover the containers with plastic and place them in your refrigerator for 3 months. The seeds need to be cold stratified to break dormancy. Cold stratification mimics winter weather. Keeping the soil moist while it is in the refrigerator mimics the wet conditions that the seeds would experience in the wild.

After three months, remove the containers from the refrigerator and gradually warm them to 70⁰F. Maintain the temperature, while keeping the soil moist until germination which should occur in 2 to 3 months. Your seedlings should be grown in light shade, keeping them well watered, during their first summer. In the late summer, begin to acclimate them to full sun. In the fall, they can be transplanted into their permanent spot in your garden.

More and more homeowners are realizing the value of using native plants instead of exotics. The red twig dogwood is a native that is a good alternative to showy non-natives. It has evolved to grow in here in North America, offers four seasons of interest and provides a food source for the local birds.

Questions & Answers

Question: What causes the leaves to look like lace on a Red Twig Dogwood?

Answer: Sounds like you have a problem with Japanese beetles: https://dengarden.com/gardening/How-to-Rid-Your-Ya...

© 2017 Caren White

Comments

Caren White (author) on December 16, 2017:

I agree Demas! Thanks for reading and commenting.

Caren White (author) on December 16, 2017:

Thank you Peggy! There are so many native plants that often are overlooked. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on December 16, 2017:

Who said the smallest part of a shrub is only a twig? Glorious twigs count extra.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 16, 2017:

This is so interesting to learn about this shrub as well as how to propagate it. Native Americans surely found good uses for it. Those red and yellow branches are particularly beautiful as shown with snow on the ground as in those first two photos.