I stood on the Marys River bridge in Corvallis on a sunny fall day, watching a quivering, trembling thicket of red and purple leaves. On each cluster of small white berries was an American Robin, flapping wildly to balance on the slender red twigs. Dozens of birds squabbled and thrashed around, gobbling berries and competing for the best picking spot in this riverbank thicket.
Few fruits can tempt birds the way Red-Osier Dogwood berries do, but the plant also has a long history of human use that continues today. It grows in rich, moist soils, near streams or in broken woodlands, across most of northern North America. Cornus sericea goes by many other names: Creek Dogwood, Red Willow, American Dogwood, and the local subspecies is sometimes called Western Dogwood.
Despite its common name, you wouldn’t necessarily guess that this tall shrub is closely related to the showy Pacific Dogwood tree and the charming Bunchberry, a familiar trailside wildflower in the Cascades. While its relatives have large white bracts that resemble petals, Red-Osier Dogwood has tiny flowers borne in flat clusters.
Red-Osier Dogwood attracts fruit-eating birds and other wildlife, such as this American Robin and Townsend’s Chipmunk.blossoms attract bumblebees, flies, butterflies and other pollinators. Once pollinated, the berries develop, ripening from green to white or bluish-white. Soon, a hint of color appears on the leaves, typically deepening to purple, scarlet or maroon in autumn. Once the leaves have fallen, bright red twigs glow against winter’s subdued palette.
For wildlife, though, the fruit is the main attraction. Though they’re commonly called berries, botanically, they’re drupes like peaches or cherries. Inside the fleshy little fruit is a single hard-shelled pit, with two kernels inside.
Fruit-eating birds, such as American Robins, Western Bluebirds and Cedar Waxwings, relish the little white berries and swallow them whole. Most dogwood pits pass through their digestive tracts intact. Red-Osier Dogwood depends on these birds to deposit its seeds away from the parent plant, just as many other berry-producing plants do. Dogwood berries are so beloved by wildlife that the bushes are typically stripped of every last berry. Only then do the fruit-eating critters turn to less palatable fare, such as Common Snowberry and rose hips.
Some animals may prefer to eat the kernels inside the berry, which offers no benefit to the plant. I’ve watched Golden-crowned Sparrows mashing the berries around in their bills until the skin and pulp fall off. They seem to crack the pit open to extract the kernels, though it’s hard to see just what they’re doing. Townsend’s Chipmunks also harvest the berries, and I suspect that they eat the fruit and then gnaw through the pit to the kernels inside.
The leaves and twigs are browsed by American Beavers, Blacktail Deer, Elk and rabbits, and many birds find good nesting habitat in the dense streamside thickets.
Not only is Red-Osier Dogwood valuable to wildlife, it’s been used by native peoples across North America. We can only assume that the local Kalapuya found many uses for it, though much ethnobotanical information about them has been lost. Anthropologists do know that not all tribes ate the tart and bitter berries, but those who did often blended them with Serviceberry, Chokecherry or other fruits, possibly to improve the flavor. They could store cakes of pounded, dried dogwood berries for long periods of time.
Osier is a French term for a type of willow used for basketry. And like its namesake, the supple red branches of Red-Osier Dogwood are often featured in Native American basket weaving. Baskets from the Columbia River region often feature red stripes of dogwood to contrast with dark willow stems.
Some tribes have used the bark to make dyes of various reddish to black hues, and the straight shoots were used for arrow shafts. The dense, hard wood could be carved into small tools and utensils. Reportedly, some tribes also used tannins from the inner bark for preserving animal hides.
Throughout the range of Red-Osier Dogwood, people used it for various medicinal or ceremonial purposes. Some California tribes whitened their teeth with peeled twigs, and others used the bark to make an eyewash, a treatment for skin problems and a remedy for dandruff. Teas made from the bark were used as a general tonic and for coughs, headaches, kidney problems or digestive issues. But the same plant also served as an emetic for Navajo ceremonies, so it should be used with caution internally.
Across the plant’s broad range, many Native American tribes shaved off the inner bark and prepared it for ceremonial smoking, and some people continue this tradition today. They usually blended Red-Osier Dogwood with other herbs. Both historical and modern users have described psychoactive effects when smoking Red-Osier Dogwood, but others refute such claims.
In modern times, the year-round appeal and hardiness of Red-Osier Dogwood has made it a popular landscaping shrub. An Asian species, Tatarian Dogwood (Cornus alba), is almost identical. Plant breeders have developed cultivars of both species, some having golden stems, variegated leaves, or a dwarf growth habit, and the two species may be confused in the nursery trade. Although ornamental cultivars of either dogwood are suitable for wildlife-friendly landscaping, native plant advocates recommend using wild-type plants from our bioregion. Specialty native plant nurseries usually provide local Red-Osier Dogwood stock that is best suited to the Willamette Valley’s climate.
If you’d like to add Red-Osier Dogwood to your yard, the best time to do it is in late fall through early spring, while the plants are still dormant. While you can buy plants, you can also try propagating them yourself. Clip long shoots from wild plants and simply drive them deeply into moist soil. Most should take root in the spring and begin to grow. Within a few years, your cuttings will attract pollinators and birds, and provide beauty in every season.
Red-osier dogwood and Pacific dogwood are available through the Benton Soil & Water Conservation District’s Annual Native Plant Sale. A limited quantity of bunchberry will be offered at the Native Plant Market on February 25, 2017.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2016 edition of the Neighborhood Naturalist newsletter. Neighborhood Naturalist promotes interest about nature in mid-Willamette Valley backyards, neighborhoods, and countryside. Visit the Neighborhood Naturalist website to subscribe.