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?Â
If we’re looking at a mystery shrub, how do we even know when we’re looking at a dogwood (theÂ 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 meetsÂ 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.