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Red Twig Dogwood Shrubs

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Cornus alba 'sibirica' (red-barked dogwood). mid shot of red branches. november. Susie Mccaffrey/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Plant Taxonomy of Red Twig Dogwoods:

Plant taxonomy classifies the red twig dogwoods (or "redtwig" dogwoods) I feature here as Cornus alba 'Elegantissima.' 'Elegantissima' is the cultivar name. A variant on this cultivar name is 'Argenteo-marginata.'

Plant Type:

Red twig dogwoods are broadleaf, deciduous flowering shrubs.

Characteristics of Red Twig Dogwood Shrubs:

'Elegantissima' red twig dogwoods grow to a height of 8', with a similar spread (sans pruning). They bear variegated leaves (greenish-gray with a white edge) and small white flowers that form in flat clusters. These flowers are succeeded by berries that are a white color (alba, the specific epithet, means "white" in Latin) with hints of blue and green. The fall foliage can pick up hints of rose or gold, but I find its foliage less attractive, overall, in autumn, as leaves pick up brown spots with age. You'll be glad that the foliage is deciduous, as you'll have a clear view of the red color of the bark in winter.

Planting Zones for Red Twig Dogwood Shrubs:

Grow red twig dogwood shrubs in planting zones 3-8.

Sun and Soil Requirements for Red Twig Dogwood Shrubs:

Red twig dogwood bushes are considered good plants for wet areas (for example, wet spots where homeowners may wish to establish woodland gardens), although some report that they perform better in well-drained soils. Work humus into the soil for nutrients. A somewhat acidic soil is preferred. In terms of sunlight requirements, red twig dogwood shrubs will tolerate partial shade, but their signature red bark will be brightest if they are planted in full sun.

Outstanding Characteristic of Red Twig Dogwood Shrubs:

Red twig dogwood shrubs provide year-round interest. But despite bearing spring blossoms, variegated leaves in summer, and berries from summer to fall, clearly this plant's common name explains the main reason people grow it: namely, the bush's red twigs, which are brightest in winter.

Uses for Red Twig Dogwood Shrubs in Landscaping:

Red twig dogwood shrubs should be planted somewhere in your yard where they can be easily viewed from a window, to take advantage of their status as top-notch specimen plants for winter landscapes. Use red twig dogwoods in combination with yellow twig dogwoods for an even more stunning winter display. With or without yellow twig dogwoods, red twig dogwoods look best massed together. On a more practical level, the widely-spreading root systems of red twig dogwoods make them effective plants for erosion control (e.g., on bankings).

Care -- Pruning Red Twig Dogwoods:

The brightness of this bush's red twigs has a tendency to fade over time from winter to summer, and there's not much you can do about that. But through proper care, you can do something about the fact that the older branches tend to be less colorful than the younger ones. Care for this plant amounts mainly to pruning. Prune in late winter.

For maximal color, prune out 1/3 of the older branches every three years or so (or even annually, as long as you don't mind having a plant of a smaller size). Such care will promote new growth; and since the younger branches bear the brightest color, that's precisely the growth that you want to encourage.

Origin, Other Names for Red Twig Dogwood Shrubs:

The species plants (Cornus alba) are indigenous to eastern and central Asia, including some of the stomping grounds of the Tatars or Tartars; thus "Tatarian dogwoods" or "Tartarian dogwoods" is an alternate name for red twig dogwood shrubs.

When people wish to call attention to the foliage, rather than the bark of variegated red twig dogwood shrubs, they may refer to them by names such as "silverleaf dogwoods," "silver-edge dogwoods" ('Argenteo-marginata' means "silver-edged" in Latin), or "cream-edge tatarian dogwoods."

Red Dogwoods -- And Yellow and Orange, Too!:

Different species of dogwood shrubs with red bark can be found around the globe in the Northern Hemisphere. All are classified under the genus, Cornus:

  • Red twig dogwoods (Cornus alba), native to Asia
  • Red osier dogwoods (Cornus sericea or Cornus stolonifera), native to North America
  • Bloodtwig dogwoods (Cornus sanguinea), native to Europe

The similarities between these species -- and the similarity in their common names, all of which include or signify "red" -- has led to much confusion as to which is which, even in the nursery trade. If you have your heart set on a particular cultivar, be sure to make your purchase from an establishment that you trust.

By the way, etymologists tell us that the word "dogwood" has nothing to do with dogs. Instead, it harkens back to an old word, "dag" (think "dagger"), which referred to a sharp tool. Dogwood branches were useful in making such tools, since the wood is so hard. Indeed, the Latin genus name for dogwood is Cornus and means "horn."

Consult my main article on dogwoods if you wish to research other types of Cornus.

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