Dogwoods in Winter

The deep reds of red-osier dogwood stems. Easily visible from a distance (Centennial Woods)

I have a thing for trees. Which is a way of saying that I have an aversion for shrubs. But I’m working on it. Part of my aversion stems from (pun intended) the relatively huge diversity of shrubs compared to trees. Each winter I’m reminded of my neglect by those vibrant little red spikes sticking up along roadsides and on the edges of wetlands. Dogwoods. Ugh. There seem to be an impenetrable number of them to identify. Or are there? Feeling a little guilty about dogwoods I checked my copy of Magee and Ahles. 7?! What, no way there are only 7 species. And one, bunchberry, is not even a shrub. Feeling now a bit more confident, I went into the woods with a mission to learn the dogwoods! And conveniently enough, it turns out that if you can find one, you can usually find at least 4 species.

My attempt to learn the dogwoods was a key to unlocking the world of shrubs. They’re in a sense, a trail that delicately weaves through the metaphorical tangle of shrubs at the forest’s edge. I hope to guide you here through the dogwoods and then onto bigger and better shrubs. What follows is a quick guide to the dogwoods of Vermont, and in subsequent posts I’ll include profiles on our 5 common dogwood shrubs (excluding flowering dogwood and bunchberry).

From left to right: Alt-leaf dogwood, round-leaf, silky, red-osier, and gray dogwood

And just what is a dogwood? 
If we’re looking at a mystery shrub, how do we even know when we’re looking at a dogwood (the Cornus genus). We can start with big lumps of different species and whittle our way down to smaller and smaller lumps until we’re left with a genus-sized lump. The first lumping of our woody plants can be done by separating out the conifers from the deciduous, broad-leaf shrubs. Conifer shrubs are easy: common juniper (which has needles/scales for leaves and blue berries for cones) and yew (flattened needles and red fruits). Not so easy when it comes to the >100 broad-leaf shrubs. A next easy step is to lump out our shrubs with alternate branches leaving us with just a couple dozen opposite branched shrubs. For the opposites, we can use the mnemonic: MAD Capped Bucking Horse. Breaking it down we have:

  • Maples: shrubs include mountain maple, boxelder (sort of), and striped maple
  • Ashes: or the olive family. Shrubs include forsythia
  • Dogwoods: all are shrubs except bunchberry which is a common alpine herbaceous plant with white flowers and red berries.
  • Caprifoliaceae: -aceae as a suffix denotes a family of plants. This family includes a bunch of shrubs, like honeysuckles, viburnums, elderberries. Some taxonomists have split up this family, but we’ll leave ’em together for simplicity.
  • Buckthorns: Both glossy and common buckthorn are sub-opposite. Super common invasive species.
  • Horse-chestnut: Horse-chestnuts and others in the genus, like the buckeyes. All these are trees and uncommon in Vermont except as ornamentals.

Among these opposite branched shrubs, some have winged seeds (like the maples), compound leaves (like elderberries), toothed leaves (like viburnums), naked buds (like viburnums), scaled buds (like honeysuckle), and so on. We can use these finer details to pin down our shrub as a dogwood and not a honeysuckle, viburnum, buckthorn, elderberry, forsythia or a less common opposite shrub. All dogwoods have:

  • stalked buds with 2-4 scales (though the scales might appear to be like naked buds) and densely covered in hair (except alternate-leaf dogwood)
  • red, white, or blue DRUPES arranged in big clusters, like a raceme (only elderberries and viburnums share this)
  • Simple, entire leaves with latex in the veins (elderberries have compound leaves, viburnums are toothed, only dogwoods have latex in the leaves)

So if it meets all those criteria, then you’re looking at a dogwood (Cornus). While there are a confusing array of ornamental dogwoods (because of their beautifully colored twigs), there are only 5 different species commonly found growing wild in Vermont, and one is an oddball with alternate branches. Below is a chart summarizing the variation in different features on the 4 opposite branching dogwoods, followed by a gallery of the different species.

Quick Comparison Chart

Gray Dogwood
C. racemosa
Red-osier Dogwood
C. sericea
Silky Dogwood
C. amomum
Round-leaf Dogwood
C. rugosa
HABITAT Roadsides and edges as well as riparian/wetland areas. Seems more aligned with disturbance than water. Spreads by stolons creating a dense stand of red-osiers. Common in riparian areas, and also sites of disturbance  Anywhere wet  Upland forests, rocky slopes
MATURE BARK Gray. As it gets even older the bark becomes blocky, but rare to find bigger specimens Red at maturity, unlike silky dogwood, and still mostly smooth Turning gray in second to third year with gray/brown bands weaving down the trunk Greenish with prominent round lenticels
TWIGS Twig very slender, light brown, not pubescent Red, glossy. Leaf scars are thinner than silky dogwood, but stick out farther Bright red, but often with a pinker hue than red-osier because it’s typically densely pubescent (haired) Can be pinkish with chocolate-y spots, like neapolitan ice cream, covered sparsely with short, stiff, white hairs.
PITH White White Brown White
BUDS  Tiny, orange stalk, reddish brown budscales Darker, especially lateral buds, but can be a yellowish brown and similar to silky dogwoods, densely haired Yellowish brown, densely haired Elongate, pink, stalked, sparse but stiff hairs
FRUIT White  White  to pale blue Blue White to a lightish blue

The other dogwoods

There are 2 other shrubby dogwoods that we have in our Vermont woodlands: alternate-leaf dogwood and flowering dogwood, and 1 herbaceous dogwood

  • Alternate-leaf dogwood is very common, but as the name suggests, does not have opposite branches. It has smooth, shiny, purplish stems and typically grows as an understory shrub in hardwood forests. If the twigs succumb to the common fungus, golden canker (Cryptodiaporthe corni) they shrivel, becoming bumpy and a vibrant bright yellow that you can spot from a distance.
  • Flowering dogwood is far less common. If you headed south you would find it in great abundance, but southern Vermont is about the northern most extent of its range.
  • Bunchberry is a small herbaceous (non-woody) plant that grows all along the spine of the Green Mountains as an understory species in coniferous woodlands. It has large white flowers that yield red berries

Gallery of Dogwoods

More on the topic

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