Beautiful dogwood

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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PEI is graced with four native dogwoods. The smallest is a common woodland wildflower called bunchberry. Like all dogwoods, the veins in the leaves run out towards the tip. The veins in most other leaves run off to the side. Bunchberry grows best in dappled light and produces edible orange fruits that have crunchy seeds inside. It is also called cackleberry or crackleberry due to the sound the seeds make when the fruit is chewed.

The red-osier dogwood is the red-twigged shrub typically found in Island ditches, as it is quite tolerant for full sun and wet soils. The round-leaf dogwood is one of our rarest native shrubs, with generally rounder leaves.  Both of these shrubs have “opposite” leaves and branches, coming off the stem directly across from each other.

Our final native shrub in this family defies normal, in that its leaves are not opposite, but alternate (a single leaf on one side, then above that another leaf on the other side, etc.). The good thing about this plant is its name. As soon as you notice the leaves, you know it is a dogwood. Then when you see that the leaves are not opposite, you know it is an alternate-leaf dogwood.

This shrub grows to a height of about 20 feet (6.1 metres) and has a distinct habit of producing whorls of horizontal branches off the main stem.  Because of this growing pattern, it is known as pagoda dogwood and looks more like a Japanese landscape plant than a PEI native shrub.

In spring, the plant is loaded with creamy white compound flowers, which are attractive to a mix of pollinators—everything from bees and wasps to moths and butterflies. By late August, the flower stems have turned bright red and the flowers have become beautiful purple berries. The shrub’s shape, the white flowers, and the purple fruit against the red fruit stems make this an excellent choice for a specimen landscape plant. It does best in rich soil with dappled light, but is worthwhile to grow even if the conditions are not optimal.

Berries are a preferred food of ruffed grouse, northern flicker, vdowny woodpecker, American robin, wood thrush, hermit thrush, Swainson’s thrush, gray-cheeked thrush, cedar waxwing, red-eyed vireo, evening grosbeak, purple finch and pine grosbeak. Chipmunks and other small mammals make use of the fruit, while buds are eaten by ruffed grouse and ring-necked pheasant. Alternate-leaf dogwood provides cover and nesting sites to many species of birds.

This dogwood is an excellent addition to forest restoration efforts where you have the proper light conditions – not really dark, but not full sun either. You’re looking for that sweet spot, an open forest with light shade. It helps diversify a forest, giving you another layer of growth. This is important as some wildlife species thrive in the middle-canopy of the understory. It also provides different food sources in the spring and late summer.

One problem facing alternate-leaf dogwood is anthracnose, a fungal disease attacking flowering dogwoods across Canada and the northeastern states. It shows up as a yellowing of the branches and if the infection is severe, the shrub will die. Normally, that would be enough to turn me off from growing it, but the beauty of alternate-leaf dogwood really is something special.

The highlight of my yard in Tea Hill is a large alternate-leaf dogwood and I honestly wouldn’t trade it for any other plant. It brings me joy throughout the year, which really is as much as you should ever ask of a plant.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.