Gray Dogwood
Cornus racemosa

On the previous post I showed how to ID a dogwood down to its genus. Here, I’ll go through each of the 4 common shrub dogwoods (gray, silky, red-osier, and round-leaf) with opposite branches and the 1 with alternate branches (alternate-leaf dogwood) that we have in Vermont.

QUICK WINTER ID + NOTES: Gray dogwood is easily recognizable from the other dogwoods by the orange-brown color on the new growth of twigs. As its name might suggest, it’s not the flashiest of plants, with a dull gray bark on parts of the tree more than a year old. In winter it can be hard to pick this shrub out from many other shrubs competing for real estate in wetlands and along roadsides. If you want to find it, I suggest looking for the more visually stunning red-osier and silky dogwoods, and then poking around as there’s bound to be some gray dogwood nearby. When poking around keep your eyes tuned from the orangey new growth and super thin twigs (similar to honeysuckles, but the twigs are far less dense).

Once you get a sense of what it looks like, you’ll start to see it in lots of other places as well. It does particularly well in disturbed sites (like a powerline clearings) with wet soils. In the fall, the bright white fruit and purple mottled leaves make this shrub stand out. Gray dogwood is stoloniferous, producing lateral runners that send up new growth, so this shrub can form a small thicket, though not quite as dense as with red-osier or silky dogwood.

Identifying Characteristics

HABITAT Stream banks, disturbed areas with wetter soils
MATURE BARK Dull gray at maturity, breaking into small blocks. But good luck finding one big enough to start getting that blocky pattern
TWIGS Very thin. An orange brown in recent growth, turning a dull gray in second year
PITH Thin, white
BUDS Stalk is a orangish color, bud scales are reddish, entire bud covered with stiff light colored hairs
FLOWERS White petals, inflorescence is a raceme, with bright red peduncle (inflorescence stalk)
FRUITS White fruits with small black dots; similar to doll’s eyes
SIMILAR SPECIES Buds are somewhat similar to silky dogwood buds, but none of the other dogwoods have super thin, orange-brown twigs, so should be readily distinguishable on this characteristic alone.

Research

  • Gray dogwood fruits have about 4x more fat content than silky dogwoods. Some birds (like mockingbirds and gray catbirds) preferentially select gray dogwood fruits when presented with the option between the two. White-throated sparrows showed no difference in preference, suggesting they might not be able to discern the difference visually or have other factors that control their decision (link)
  • Gray dogwood, while native to New England, shows similar tendencies to non-native invasive plants because of its ability to form dense monoculture thickets that exclude other species from growing
    • One study found that in wet disturbed areas gray dogwood continually expanded its dominance, while it wasn’t as able to compete in drier upland sites. Grasses were not a deterrent to invasion by gray dogwood because gray dogwoods easily spread vegetatively by stolons (link).
    • Another study described the gray dogwood shrub community as one of five distinct successional stages of old fields in New Hampshire (link).
    • A third study looked at the effects of controlled burns and herbicide application to limit the growth of gray dogwood, finding that dormant season treatments increased gray dogwood growth and the only effective way to limit their growth was to cut down stems, which increased fuel supply, and then burn (link)

Gallery

Click images for full size photos

More on the topic

Digging all this natural history content?

Become a monthly supporter on Patreon.

Be sure to check the archives for back issues.
And shoot me an email if you have an idea for a future blog post, newsletter issue, or podcast episode!

Support Crow’s Path

Subscribe to the Newsletter

STAY CONNECTED, LEARN NATURAL HISTORY