Plant profile: Cornus sericea (Red twig dogwood)

Mid-January in Central Illinois is the perfect time to feature plants that provide four seasons of interest for the home gardener. So many of the ornamental plants that brighten the non-winter months in this area of the country are well ensconced in their winter hibernation and hidden from view. There are a few plants that shine this time of year, taking over the spotlight during January and February.

One of these plants is Cornus sericia (Red Twig Dogwood), a late-spring blooming dogwood shrub that provides a solid back-of-the-border presence during the warm weather, but waits for cold weather to truly shine. In our home garden, we have two specimens (cultivar unknown) that grow to about 10 feet tall and 4-5 feet wide.

As spring arrives, the leaf buds of Cornus sericea emerge like wings held overhead and slowly unfolding to the sides, revealing the flower bud in the center.


The young leaves are tinged in red, and the flower bud appears bright green, textured like a tiny head of broccoli.

The green of the emerging leaves appears in sharp contrast to the red cast of the stems.


As the leaves emerge fully, they take on a heavily-veined, glossy cast.


The small white flowers with cream-colored centers appear in 2-3 inch wide flat clusters in early May, and sporadically re-bloom during the summer months.


As the summer months pass, the woody stems of Cornus sericea take on a dull green, sometimes yellowish color, but by early winter have returned to a deep mahogany red that brightens the garden through winter.

The red twig along our back border was planted before we moved to the property. We’ve had to prune it heavily several times, as it tends to grow non-uniformly resulting in an unkempt appearance. This specimen has also been plagued by scale and regularly needs pruning of dead wood. Many a year, I have been tempted to cut it to the ground, and start over, but have always opted instead to rejuvenation pruning of about 1/3 of the stems.

The other red twig, located along the northern pathway between the front and back yard, has been a virtually maintenance free shrub. My wife was given a single 1/4 inch stem from a co-worker, which we planted directly in the garden border. It has grown into a healthy, solid performer in our landscape.

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