Red Osier Dogwood

Full image of the Red osier dogwood.
Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
The red osier dogwood is a deciduous thicket-forming shrub with dark red winter stems, and it can grow up to 1.4-6 m tall. This shrub is mostly known for its stunning dark red winter stems which in winter often stand in stark contrast to the surrounding snow. Beyond that, this shrub is monoecious with perfect flowers, that are pollinated by short- and long- tongued bees, wasps, and butterflies, and its white-blue drupes are consumed by a variety of bird (~95 species) and mammal species. Its presence on science hill actually is somewhat out of place as these shrubs prefer riparian areas and often are good indicators of wet, basic soils for surveyors. However, its presence on the hill may help stabilize the soil around it, as the plant can be used to reinforce stream and river banks.
Vanessa Zhang, Nick DeLuca
Collected Data
Tree shape: 
Upright rounded.
Date of tree entry: 
0.87 m
There is some other reason the DBH cannot be measured accurately
Smooth, dark red bark with white lenticels. These branches can obtain a slight green coloration during the summer.
Twigs & branches
Twigs, leaves, and buds all extend in an opposite fashion from the main stem. Where their branches make contact with the ground roots are formed promoting thickets.
The foliage is deciduous (seasonally loses leaves). The leaves are simple, opposite, 2-4 inches long, 1-3 inches wide, oblong to ovate shaped. They are a medium green color and lighter green underneath, changing to reddish-purple in the fall. There are 5 to 6 lateral veins per side. The leaf edges are smooth.
Reproductive Structures
The red osier dogwood has perfect, yellowish-white flowers that appear around late May to early June and remain until August. The flowers are arranged in 1 to 3 inch broad, convex to flat-topped clusters. The short-stalked flowers form at the tip of the branches. Each individual flower is about 1/4 inch across with 4 narrow, lance-shaped petals and a minute sepal. The 4 stamens are longer than the petals, spreading around the single white style in the middle.
The blueish-white fruit ripens in late summer. They are round, berry-like drupes, about 1/4 inch in diameter. The cluster stalks are green to dull purplish-red. Each drupe usually contains one dark brown hard seed, which is round, 4 to 6 mm, with a slightly flattened top and bottom. The fruits are attractive to birds and small mammals.
  • Summer Image (Note, not the same plant as students not present during the summer. Image obtained from
  • Winter Image
  • Spring Image
  • Fall Image (Note, not the same plant as students not present during fall. Image obtained from Oakland Nurseries).
Natural range of distribution: 
The red osier dogwood is native to most of Canada and the United States, with the exclusion of the Southern United States beginning at the border of Virginia and lower parts of the Midwest. These shrubs grow best in wet to mesic soil conditions with full to partial sun. Because it prefers poorly drained soils, it is frequently found in marshes, riverbanks, lakeshores, wooded or open wet areas.
Origin, history, and uses: 

The red osier dogwood is indigenous to North America, and its general name, red osier dogwood, also reveals a bit about its past. In French, an osier is a European willow, and settlers to the New World originally thought the dogwood was a willow during the winter. Interestingly, dogwood is actually a bastardization of the word dag, a Scandinavian word for skewer! The hard stems of the dogwoods have been used for skewers, farm implements, and in baskets for centuries in Europe. This particular skewer use was also shared by the Native Americans with the red osier dogwood and later by the European settlers.

Its Latin name also reveals a bit about its character. Cornus stands for “horn” in Latin while sericea “silky.” The leaves of the plant are smooth with little hairs hence the silkiness, but the branches are very strong but flexible hence horn, and have been used by Native Americans for many centuries due to these properties, as arrow shafts, wooden fish hooks, and skewers. Some even wove the branches into fish traps.

However, the Native Americans have also traditionally used the bark of the shrub as kinnikinik which was a mixture of the bark of the red osier dogwood and tobacco leaves. The effects of smoking the mixture are said to lead to drowsiness and stupefaction. Native Americans also consumed the bitter white drupes (as they contain pits) of the plant which were said to be medicinal and had properties which could stem bleeding. It was also used to treat a number of conditions including parasites, colds, and headaches. In fact, an analog to salicylic acid (i.e., aspirin), coronic acid is contained within the plant’s bark. Some tribes even peeled off the twigs of the plant and used them to white their teeth.

Humans, however, are not the only ones to enjoy this plant. The drupes of the plant are a favorite of birds, particularly the American Robin, and their thickets can sometimes be used as suitable nests. Elk, beavers, moose, chipmunks, and rabbits often graze the leaves and branches of the plant as well.

For landscaping, the shrub is primarily used to stabilize streambanks and prevent erosion. They can also be used as windbreaks, slope stabilizers, and purely for decoration. It may be planted in combination with willow. 

Fall phenology events such as stem and leaf color and leaf abscission changes were primarily controlled by photoperiod, and spring phenology events such as bud break and flowering were influenced mainly by temperature. The bloom time is May to July. The fruit ripens from August to September.

Botanist, A. Wandering. “A Wandering Botanist: Plant Story–Red Osier Dogwood, Winter Color.” A Wandering Botanist, 5 Mar. 2017,….

Cornus Sericea. Fire Effects Information System.
Cornus Sericea - Plant Finder. Misourri Botanical Garden.…
Cornus Sericea. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center - the University of Texas at Austin. 
Fertig, Walter. Red Osier Dogwood. U.S. Forest Service.
Millbank, Lisa. “Red-Osier Dogwood.” Benton Soil & Water Conservation District, 22 Nov. 2016,
Plants Profile for Cornus Sericea Sericea (Redosier Dogwood). United States Department of Agriculture: Natural Resources Conservation Service. 
Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus Sericea) - Carleton College.….
“Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus Sericea) at Oakland Nurseries Inc.” Oakland Nurseries Plant Finder
Other information of interest: 

To identify this dogwood, peel open the petiole of the plant and identify the white pith inside. If it is the red osier dogwood, the pith will have a rubbery stringy consistency. 

Media and Arts

A Bloody Shrub

Tiny bush your fire is faux I say.

You do not smolder in the rain,

Nor in winter warm the icy cold pain.

Yet, there you stand on slippery brae,

unfazed by runoff or rill with branches adorned in regal leis.

To promise light but only to feign,

What can you possibly gain?

For whom do your branches splay?

Ah, I see the first ones recall,

Branches crimson and tipped with buds.

Consuming your berries, we do not fall into thrall,

But receive the antidote to the seeping of lifeblood.

You prevent the draping of the pall.

Please, do keep growing even in flood.

Shrub Canopy Area: