One does not typically befriend shrubs; they are too set in their ways, and too often those ways lead them into destruction. With a shrub, one must practice a cool, aloof manner and develop a discerning eye, because there will come a day when, for the good of all, the shrub—or part of it—must be sacrificed, generally because it has clambered over the sidewalk and hauls down baby carriages as they pass.
The gray dogwood, however, is a genteel shrub; though large, it has a graceful, open, airy habit, a colorful wardrobe and popularity with the birds and squirrels.
The white flowers open in June or July, when most other dogwoods have long since lost their bloom, but the white berries follow quickly and mature before most other dogwoods, which endears them to birds (including turkey, bobwhite, pheasant and others). The pedicels (fruiting stalks) are said by some to be the prettiest part of this species—they’re reddish pink, and they persist into winter. Fall foliage is also colorful (typically green with red and purple edges and veins), as are the stems, which begin a reddish color but turn gray with maturity.
Gray dogwood grows wild across the eastern half of North America; it’s a tough, cold-hardy shrub. In the ideal setting it will form thickets, so you’ll have to prune now and then if you want to keep it singular. But what’s a haircut between friends?
Common name: gray dogwood, northern swamp dogwood, panicled dogwood, western dogwood
Botanical name: Cornus racemosa
Plant type: Small tree or large shrub
Zones: 3 to 8
Height: 5 to 15 feet
- Sun: Prefers full sun; tolerates partial shade
- Soil: Prefers average soil with good drainage
- Moisture: Tolerates both moist and dry conditions
- Mulch: Use mulch to help retain moisture.
- Pruning: Will spread slowly by suckers—remove these if you don’t desire a thicket; can be pruned as a hedge or as a small, single-trunked tree.
- Fertilizer: None needed
- By seed or cutting
Pests and diseases
- Possible diseases include cankers, powdery mildew and leaf spot.
- The dogwood bud gall may appear.
- Common pests include aphids, leafhoppers and scale insects.
- For gray dogwood, as for other large shrubs, think in width as well as height—you’ll want to choose a site where it’s got at least 10 feet to stretch out.
- Many bird species, including pheasant, turkey and woodcock, eat the fruit and find shelter in the branches. Let gray dogwood’s suckering tendencies work for you, and plant it as a wildlife-friendly hedge.
- Plant two or more for best fruit production.
All in the family
- Cornaceae contains more than 100 species. The family’s genuses most familiar to North American gardeners are Cornus (dogwoods) and Nyssa (sweet gum and black gum trees, among others).
- If you want a gray dogwood but have limited space, consider a cultivar. Several are available: some grow only 2 or 3 feet tall, and others grow to a normal height but have a narrower habit.
Where to buy