Elderberries are ripening this time of year where we live, so if you have any interest in harvesting these berries, it is as good a time as ever to nail down your elderberry identification skills. Black Elderberry (sambucus nigra) shrubs are pretty distinctive, but if you are not paying close attention to what you are seeing, mistaking other plants for them is not impossible. At certain stages of development, a couple plants in particular appear the closest of all to Elderberry: the Silky Dogwood (cornus amomum) and the Redosier (Red Osier) Dogwood (cornus sericea). To complicate the trouble of precisely identifying Redosier Dogwood in contrast to the Silky Dogwood, Redosier is a variable species, which essentially means that its morphology is not always the same–different specimens can look different from each other. For our purposes, though, that is not very important; we are trying to distinguish the Dogwoods from Elderberry, not so much from each other.
If you take the time to google “elderberry look-alikes,” your search results will likely include references to Water Hemlock and Pokeberry–the former deathly poisonous and the latter arguably poisonous if used improperly. Aside from the risk-factor of mistaking those plants for Elderberry (which has its own share of toxicity-risks), there is almost no reason to fear mistaking Water Hemlock or Pokeberry for Elderberry. Those two plants are markedly different from Elderberry in fairly obvious ways–I won’t go into them in detail now, but suffice it to say, when identifying a plant, don’t hinge your identification on only one feature (e.g. berries, drupes or flowers growing in cyme patterns). Pay attention to the overall habit of the plant–the location, the time, duration, and color of the flowers (if any), whether it is woody or herbaceous, the pattern and color of the bark, a general sampling of the leaves–opposite, alternate, whorled–from many parts of the plant, the shape, margins, and vein structure of the leaves, the characteristics of the fruit, etc. If you observe carefully and thoroughly, and especially if you begin to learn the vocabulary of kingdom Plantae and attach deeper meaning to your sensory experience of these objects, you will gradually become more accurate in plant identification.
Having said that, let’s return to the Silky Dogwood. Here’s a close-up of its lovely flower cyme (that’s the name of that cluster pattern):
And here’s the Redosier Dogwood:
For comparison, here is the Black Elderberry bloom:
Certainly these flower clusters look similar. But that is not the only similarity they share (I’ll get to the differences in a moment). They both tend to grow in wet locations–though both are very tolerant plants–so you may even find them growing together (as we did recently).
The main thing that makes these Dogwoods more likely candidates for elderberry confusion than other look-alikes like Pokeberry and Water Hemlock is the fact that they too are shrubs of very similar proportions (from 6-10′ high) to elderberry. Look at the Silky Dogwood for example:
And here, the Black Elderberry:
Clearly there are differences between them, but at least we are dealing with similar types of plants. The most conspicuous distinguishing features between these Dogwoods and the Elderberry, however, are in the leaves and the fruits. Elderberry leaves are compound. Silky Dogwood and Redosier Dogwood leaves are simple. Elderberry leaf margins are toothed. The dogwood leaves are smooth. Study the following images to note the differences between the Elderberry leaf on the left and the Redosier Dogwood leaves on the right:
Silky Dogwood (cornus amomum):
Redosier Dogwood (cornus sericea):
And finally, Black Elderberry (sambucus nigra):
Let’s turn to the berries and drupes. Note first the density and size of the cymes in both dogwoods as compared to the elderberry. The dogwoods’ cymes are smaller and less dense than the elderberry’s (obviously the presence of berries or drupes will depend on fertilization), but the dogwoods’ drupes are larger than elderberries. Also be aware of the color of the fruit (this is one of the best ways to discern whether you’re dealing with a silky or redosier, too). At least where we live, elderberries ripen to a rich deep purple well before the silky or redosier fruits ripen. Thus, if you see ripe elderberries side by side with a dogwood, you should see that the dogwood fruits are still green. Observe the following photo; Redosier in the foreground, Elderberry in the background (just a few of the elderberries are starting to turn purple):
And finally, just for contrast, Black Elderberry:
So, to recap, pay close attention to these distinguishing features:
|Leaves||Leaf Margins||Fruit Color when Ripe||Time of ripening|
|Sambucus Nigra||Compound||Toothed||Deep Purple||Late July–September|
|Cornus Amomum||Simple||Smooth||Blue||Around September|
|Cornus Sericea||Simple||Smooth||White||After September|
I hope at least some of this information is helpful. Do remember–if you are not sure what a plant is, first work hard to figure it out (because maybe you’ll learn something new). If you can’t figure it out with reasonable confidence, then don’t eat it for now–you’ll probably get another opportunity in the future!
Spring/Fall Color for Wet Soils
Silky Dogwood is a deciduous shrub with ornamental features. You could effectively use these for hedgerows and windbreaks, or even as a specimen plant. One would look terrific at the back border of your garden, and they even work well for erosion control.
Your Silky Dogwood has attractive greenish-white flower clusters that appear in flat-topped, 2.5-inch clusters in the spring. The flowers mature to berry-like drupes that begin white but slowly transform to a lovely blue for the fall.
The fruit is eaten by game birds, and is especially important as a source of food for migrating songbirds. The glossy, medium-green leaves are up to 5-inches long with noticeable veins and silky hairs on their undersides (thus this Dogwood’s name).
The brown twigs likewise have tiny hairs, with the twigs adding a reddish hue for autumn. After the leaves fall, the brown/red twigs stand out against the brilliant white snow, and present an important source of winter browse for deer and rabbits.
The Silky Dogwood will mature to 6-8 feet tall with an equal spread, but can be trimmed to any size. It has no serious insect or disease issues and is relatively fast-growing. Silky Dogwood does particularly well in moist areas, so would be a great addition to your yard for those soggy areas that are difficult to find good plantings for.
Silky dogwood’s beautiful spring flowers, fall drupes and lively bark color make it a charming addition for your home. Its fast-growing, hardy nature and suitability for even moist soils add even more benefit to this lovely ornamental shrub.
Plant one today to begin enjoying all the Silky Dogwood has to offer.
* Spring flowers
* Winter color
* Wildlife interest
* Thrives in Wet Soils
Pruning Spring Flowering Shrubs in Southern Regions
Dogwood – A Plant for all Seasons
No matter where you live in Canada, chances are there is a dogwood for you. Visually appealing and magnets for wildlife, these plants are bound to please both the gardener and naturalist in you.
There is only one genus of dogwood in Canada — Cornus — but its species come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some dogwood shrubs are loosely spreading while others are more compact and suitable for borders or disguising some unwanted feature around the house. All are great for mixing with other plants. Then there are the small dogwood trees whose graceful shapes and stunning flowers could mix with other plants or stand alone. Dogwoods even come as low-growing herbaceous plants — perfect as groundcovers.
In general, our native dogwoods have four-season appeal. With spring come flowers, sometimes showy, sometimes fragrant. Summer brings berries that contrast nicely with the leaves. Autumn leaves are eye-catching, with shades of red and orange and, for some species, a late show of bright berries. For one species, at least, snowy winter affords a stunning contrast of bright red branches against the white snow.
What’s in a Name?
The origin of the name dogwood is anyone’s guess, but two likely theories have been proposed. The first refers to a European species of dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) that was used for making skewers, or daggers, and would have been referred to as dag, dague, or dagge (dagger) in old English. The second theory is based on the reported use of the same species for washing mangy dogs. As for Cornus, it is Latin for “horn” and likely refers to the hardness of the wood.
Some species, such as flowering and Pacific dogwood, have showy flowers. The two groundcover species have flowers that are rather inconspicuous but appear magnificent framed by the surrounding large, petal-like bracts. Other dogwoods have clusters of small, creamy-white flowers. Dogwood berries can be bright red, white, dark blue, or even a combination of dark blue and white, as with the silky dogwood. Most species have attractive fall foliage in shades of burgundy, orange, and red.
Dogwoods have proven to be extremely invaluable to wildlife and humans alike. Shrubby species stabilize slopes and shores, protecting them from erosion. Their branches provide shelter for land and water animals. Dogwood flowers provide nectar to pollinating insects and then become fruit that is sought after by birds and mammals. Even the buds, twigs, and leaves of dogwood are munched on occasionally by local wildlife, although usually not enough to seriously damage the plant.
Depending on where you live, you may look forward to one or many of these visitors to your garden if you plant their favorite dogwood: spruce and ruffed grouse, yellow-bellied sapsucker, wild turkey, woodpeckers (downy, hairy, red-bellied, pileated), great-crested flycatcher, eastern kingbird, tree swallow, thrushes (Swainson’s, wood, hermit), American catbird, brown thrasher, cedar waxwing, red-eyed vireo, pine warbler, northern cardinal, white-throated sparrow, evening grosbeak, purple finch, eastern cottontail, chipmunk, white-footed mouse, beaver, black bear, white-tailed deer, and moose.
As with the foliage of most shrubs and trees, the dogwood’s foliage provides important shelter for perching and nesting. Donald Stokes noted that grey dogwood seemed a favorite nesting spot of local birds such as mockingbirds, catbirds, and chipping sparrows.
This hard wooded plant has also attracted human interest. Flowering dogwood, in particular, proved suitable for making bowls, pipes, mallets, golf clubs, and tool handles. Its powdered bark was made into toothpaste and the root bark provided a scarlet dye. Aboriginal people also used red osier dogwood: the bark was smoked in pipes or used to make red dye and the branches were used to make baskets. Dogwoods were also valued for their healing properties — bunchberry for cold and colic remedies; pagoda dogwood for treating sore eyes; and red osier dogwood for treating ailments relating to digestion, eyes, and fever.
(Caution: We are not recommending the use of these plants for medicinal or food purposes. Many plants are poisonous or harmful if eaten or used externally. The information on food and medicinal value is added for interest only. This information has been gathered from books and its accuracy has not been tested.)
If you are hoping to encourage your plants in their reproductive efforts, you’re in luck. Growing from seed is not very difficult and some species are very obliging with cuttings. Collect and clean berries, separating the seed from the pulp, and plant immediately. Take softwood tip cuttings in the summer, treat with a rooting compound, and plant in a flat for the winter. Shrubby dogwoods that sucker, like the red osier, will propagate from hardwood. Near the end of winter, but before the buds swell, cut a piece long enough to include at least three pairs of buds and place the cut end in soil or water deep enough to cover two of the bud sets. William Cullina of the New England Wild Flower Society recommends starting shrubby species in wet to moderately dry ground and in full sun for dense growth and strong twig colour.
Dogwoods have varied needs, although they tend to prefer sun to partial shade. Some species — such as bunchberry and flowering and pagoda dogwoods — enjoy slightly acidic soil. Most dogwoods enjoy moist soil and grow naturally along the edge of woods or shores. However, some, like the grey and round-leaved dogwoods, tolerate or even thrive in poor soil. All benefit from compost and leaf mould.
The bright red of red osier dogwood stems can fade in the summer months. To encourage bright red new growth, cut back the oldest stems (above a set of buds) in late winter or early spring before the leaves appear.
Flowering dogwoods (C. florida) have had some difficulty with the anthracnose fungus Discula destructiva, also called dogwood blight, which can kill part or, rarely, all of the tree. Symptoms include dieback on the branches in the early summer with dried leaves on twigs. The healthier your trees, the more easily they will be able to ward off this fungus. Keep them healthy by giving them a sunny spot, watering deeply (at ground level) during dry spells, mulching around the trees without touching the trunks, and providing plenty of compost.
Some Canadian Species
- Native to: YK, NT, sNU, MB, SK, ON, QC, NB, PE, NS, NL
- Habitat: Found in cool, acidic woods and damp openings. Prefers partial shade and slightly acidic soil but tolerates both dappled and full shade and other soil media. Keep moist.
- Appearance: 4 showy, white, petal-like bracts surrounding small, greenish flowers appear in the early summer followed by bright red berries by late summer. Attractive ground cover growing 7 — 20 cm.
Northern Dwarf Cornel
- Native to: nBC, YK, NT, NU, QC, NL, NS
- Habitat: Grows in woods, marshes, and bogs and likes similar conditions to bunchberry.
- Appearance: Like bunchberry, but its showy bracts are pale purplish-white surrounding small, dark purple flowers.
- Native to: ON, sQC, wNB
- Habitat: Occurring in damp thickets, marshes, and streambanks. Prefers wet soils with full sun to partial shade.
- Appearance: From 1 to 3 m. Small, whitish flowers in flat-topped clusters bloom in early summer. Fruits are dark blue, sometimes with white, appearing by late summer and lasting until early fall. Considered more beneficial for erosion control along shores and for wildlife benefit than for ornamental gardening. Branches red and grey.
- Note: C. obliqua is very similar, but its leaves taper at both ends and are pale beneath.
Red-panicled dogwood, Grey dogwood
- Native to: MB, ON, swQC
- Habitat: Naturally occurring in thickets, streambanks, roadsides, and sandy slopes. Tolerates dry to moist soil, sun to light shade.
- Appearance: Its flowers are whitish and, unlike other dogwoods with flat clusters, appear in long, cone-shaped clusters, blooming late spring to early summer. Light grey branches with white berries on scarlet stems by late summer to late fall. Grows 2 to 4 m, forms compact thickets. Good as a border or screen, sometimes pruned to a tree-like form with a single trunk.
- Native to: seMB, ON, QC, NB, NS
- Habitat: Grows in woods and rocky slopes. Tolerates a variety of soils and prefers sun to light shade.
- Appearance: Medium-sized shrub reaching 3 m. Flat-topped clusters of white flowers bloom in late spring to early summer. Light blue/greenish-white fruit appears by end of summer and can last until fall. It is the only dogwood with purple-blotched, greenish twigs.
Red osier dogwood
Cornus stolonifera (used to be called C. sericea)
- Native to: YK, NW, sNU, BC, AB, SK, MB, ON, QC, NL, NB, NS, PE
- Habitat: Naturally grows in moist, open woods; thickets; swamps; and shores. It tolerates sun to light shade and prefers moist soil, even tolerating some standing water, but can adapt to drier conditions. Tolerates a variety of soils.
- Appearance: This vigorous shrub is typically 2 m tall with small, creamy-white flowers in a flat- topped cluster that can bloom anywhere from early summer to early fall. White berries are present in late summer and fall. Bright red branches on young growth are attractive against winter snow, becoming duller in the warmer months. Lower branches send out white roots or “stolons” into the earth. This is why it is called stolonifera,” bearing stolons”, unlike other dogwoods that grow branches from the main stems. Yellow twig dogwood (Cornus sericea “Flaviramea”) has bright yellow stems.
Pagoda dogwood, Alternate-leaf dogwood
- Native to: sMB, ON, QC, NB, NS, PE, NL
- Habitat: Naturally grows in many moisture regimes and soil textures but usually along forest edges and streambanks, ravine slopes, and open woods growing beneath larger trees in hardwood and mixedwood stands. It will therefore tolerate sun to light shade and dry to moist soils, preferably slightly acidic. The cooler the climate, the more sun it will need.
- Appearance: A small tree reaching 4 to 7 m, sometimes taller, with flat, fragrant clusters of white flowers that bloom at the end of spring or early summer. Dark blue berries form by the end of the summer. The only dogwood with alternate branching, hence its Latin name, C. alternifolia.
- Native to: sON
- Habitat: Grows in southern woods. Prefers moist, slightly acidic soil, sun to partial shade.
- Appearance: This small tree of 6 to 12 m has large, showy flowers, either white or pinkish. The flowers last for a couple of weeks in the spring before the leaves emerge. Glossy red berries appear in the fall.
- Native to: sBC (including Vancouver Island, mainland BC, coastal areas, and into the Fraser Canyon).
- Habitat: Found in moist woods and streambanks. Takes sun or shade.
- Appearance: The enormous white blossoms are occasionally pink and grow on 6 — 12 m trees (sometimes taller) with red berries following in early autumn.
- Note: Its flower is the provincial floral emblem of BC.
Images of flowering dogwood courtesy of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Ardmore, Oklahoma. Visit their Web site at www.noble.org, specifically the Plant Image Gallery. All other species images by Sarah Coulber, with the exception of the bunchberry image, which is by Jim Robertson.
References include The Natural History of Wild Shrubs and Vines by Donald W. Stokes and Weed of the Woods — Small Trees and Shrubs of the Eastern Forest by Glen Blouin.
Native plants add beauty to the garden and provide food for wildlife. Growing them can save both time and money. To learn more about growing native plants in your garden, visit our Get Growing section.
Do you have any wildlife stories, tried-and-true gardening tips, or comments? Please e-mail us, or call Sarah Coulber at 1-800-563-9453 ext. 216 or, in the Ottawa area, at 599-9594.
Silky Dogwood Information: Growing Silky Dogwood Shrubs
Also known a swamp dogwood, silky dogwood is a mid-size shrub that grows wild along streams, ponds and other wetlands across much of the eastern half of the United States. In the home landscape, silky dogwood bushes work well in moist, naturalized areas and do a good job at stabilizing the soil in erosion-prone sites. Mature height generally ranges from 6 to 12 feet. Read on for additional silky dogwood information.
Silky Dog Information
Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) is named for the silky gray hairs that cover the undersides of leaves and twigs, which turn purplish in spring and reddish-brown in autumn. It is from these silky hairs that make silky dogwood identification fairly easy.
Clusters of tiny creamy white flowers bloom in late spring and early summer. The plant is often found in shade or semi-shade but tolerates moderate sunlight.
Silky dogwood bushes may not be the best choice if your goal is a tidy, manicured garden, but the shrub’s rather unkempt, rounded appearance fits well into a natural setting. Birds love the pale blue fruit that shows up in late summer.
Growing Silky Dogwood Shrubs
A relative of dogwood trees, silky dogwood bushes are suitable for growing in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 through 8. The shrubs are adaptable plants that tolerate either dry or wet sites, but prefer moist, well-drained soil. Although silky dogwood withstands alkaline soil, the plant is better suited to slightly acidic conditions.
Caring for Silky Dogwoods
Water young shrubs regularly until the roots are well established. Once the shrubs are settled in, caring for silky dogwoods requires little effort. For example, you can water the shrub – or not. A 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch will keep the soil moist and cool. No fertilizer is required.
Remove suckers if you want to limit growth, or allow the shrubs to grow unrestrained if you want to form a naturalized screen or thicket. Prune silky dogwood as needed into any size or shape you like, and be sure to remove dead or damaged growth.