Oh those stems!
Have you ever noticed commercial landscapes often include red twig dogwood shrubs (cornus sericea)? Commercial landscapers know their containers and plantings need to look good year round so they plant red twig dogwood for the pop of color in winter. These shrubs can be used to great effect in your native plant garden, whether it is on a balcony or on 2 acres. Red twig dogwoods lend themselves to containers and multiples alike.
The red twig dogwood is a multi-stemmed shrub. Red twig dogwood blooms with white flowers in spring, has green foliage all summer and after the leaves drop, the stems debut.
At full maturity, shrubs reach 6 to 9 feet tall and wide. They grow in a range of soil types and need medium moisture but also grow in wet soils. The wetter the soils, the more likely the shrubs are to spread by suckering. Red twig dogwoods grow in part shade and sun.
There are many cultivars of red twig dogwood that have increased the intensity of the red color of the stems or produced variegated foliage or yellow stems. As always, the best choice for providing the highest ecological value is to plant the straight species, cornus sericea.
If you are not familiar with growing red twig dogwood, here are two tips to get the best wow factor. First, is location. If at all possible, place your red twig dogwood in front of a dark background. This could be a dark colored fence or wall or an evergreen. The dark background significantly improves the visibility of the red twigs in winter.
The second is pruning. The red color is most intense on new growth. If you do not prune out the older stems, those mature stems will turn increasingly grey. There are two common methods for pruning. One is a full prune, cutting the shrub back to 8" height or so every second or third year. I would not fully prune a newly planted shrub; it's best to wait until it is established. Also, if you opt for a full prune, you will not have any early summer flowers on your shrub.
The second method is to cut about a third of the most mature stems to 8" or so each year. You can do either type of pruning in spring or if you want to use the stems for solstice time decor or making wreaths, you can prune in December.
Last spring, I tried both pruning methods on two red twig dogwood shrubs of equal size and age and planted near one another in part shade. On the left, 1/3 of the stems were cut down to 8" choosing the oldest, grayest, thickest branches to cut. On the right, I cut each branch of the shrub to 8" or so in spring. The partially pruned shrub grew a bit larger but the stems are not as consistent in either red color or size. The fully pruned shrub has uniformly bright red stems that are straighter though a bit shorter than the partially pruned shrub. I prefer the full cut on the right as I often use the branches for winter pots and projects.
Yellow twig dogwood is a cultivar of the straight species red twig dogwood. It is typically planted for ornamental value as opposed to ecological value.
Red twig dogwood is one of the easiest native plants to find. Direct Natives is taking orders for these shrubs now for April delivery. Native plant nurseries and many garden centers carry red twig dogwoods. Many garden centers also carry European and Asian red twig dogwoods so if you desire native shrubs, please look for "Cornus sericea."
If you already have a red twig dogwood, you can grow more with cuttings. Check out this video.
Happy winter solstice!