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Wisconsin Plant of the Week

Cornus racemosa Lam.

Cornaceae (Dogwood Family)

Common Name:

gray dogwood


Gray dogwood is a common native shrub that tolerates a wide range of conditions. It grows in sun or shade, moist and dry sites, along waterways, fence rows, in swamps and in abandoned fields.  In hardwood forests it’s rare except after disturbance.

Mature plants are 1 to 2 m tall and spread slowly into extensive rounded clones with the tallest stems in the middle. Unlike other common dogwoods, that have reddish or purple spotted bark, the older branches of Gray Dogwood are gray.

Gray dogwood is usually easy to recognize by the bright red flower stalks or pedicels. They’re green initially in spring, but become bright red before the flowers open in June. The pedicel color persists through winter, so that from a distance the clones have a distinctive pink cast.

Wisconsin has 5 shrub dogwood species. All have simple leaves with smooth edges, and lateral veins that curve parallel to the leaf margin.  All except pagoda dogwood (C. alternifolia) have leaves arranged oppositely on the stem. Leaves of Gray Dogwood are 4 to 8 cm long, with 3 or 4 pairs of lateral veins, pointed tips and tapered bases. Red-osier (C. stolonifera), Silky (C. amomum) and rough-leaved dogwood (C. rugosa) usually have 5 or more pairs of lateral veins.

Flowers are small with 4 white petals opposite 4 stamens.  The flowers are arranged in slightly rounded clusters about 5 cm across.  Fruit are white fleshy drupes, 5 to 8 mm across.  They are a favorite food of birds and small mammals so they rarely persist past late summer.

Very little else grows in the dense shade deep inside a clone, and the absence of fuel there helps the clone to withstand fire in fields and prairie remnants.  While the species is potentially invasive, its dense  root system is useful to stabilize erosive soils and cuttings can be used to vegetate stream banks.

Although the shrubby dogwoods are distinguished by their bark, the common name is actually a corruption of “dagwood” -- the hard wood was a source of wooden daggers in medieval times.

  • More info: USDA Fact Sheet includes methods for establishing plants from rooted cuttings and live stakes
  • Origin of the name: Cornus, L., horn, refers to the hard wood; racemosa, ? origin unknown, since it refers to a type of floral arrangement, a “raceme”, where the lower flowers in a cluster open first, rather than a “cyme”, as in our dogwoods, where  the terminal flower in each cluster blooms first.
  • Range:  eastern N, Amer., ME to Man., s. to TX, SC
  • WI Range:  Statewide
  • Common associates: green ash, Virginia creeper, bur oak
  • Wetland Indicator Status: FACW-
  • Coefficient of Conservatism: C = 1 (S&W), C = 1 (MI)
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