Sunday, March 5, 2017

Plant Story--Red Osier Dogwood, Winter Color

Bright stems in the snow! 
red osier dogwood
red osier dogwood in winter
Color when the plants are dormant, awaiting spring.

red osier dogwood
red osier dogwood in foreground

Red osier dogwood, Cornus sericea, is a small native American dogwood (dogwood family, Cornaceae) found across all of North America except the southeast (USDA map). It never forms a shapely tree like some of its relatives (other dogwoods: link) but rather remains a shrub or thicket (link).

The flowers are small by dogwood standards, but white and lovely.

red osier dogwood flower

The name dogwood is from the Old English name dagwood, from dagge, a dagger or other sharp, pointed object. The European dogwood, Cornus sanguinea, was used for skewers and similar tasks. (Note that many funny words, like dagwood (Dagwood & Blondie cartoon), came from somewhere. A dumbledore is a dandelion.)

red osier dogwood flowers

Cornus was the traditional Latin name for the European dogwood. The Latin word also means "horn," apparently alluding the hardness of the wood. The specific epithet for red osier dogwood, sericea, means silky, referring to hairs on the new leaves and upper leaf surfaces. Cornus sericea is the same as Cornus stolonifera, the scientific community having determined that, not only were they the same species, the name Cornus sericea had precedence.

The berries that develop later in the year are white and conspicuous, attractive to birds but also making a striking contrast to first, green leaves and red stems, and later, to red stems.

red osier dogwood fruits

red osier dogwood fruits
Red osier dogwood with fruit in late fall.
An osier is a small European willow. Apparently settlers thought it looked like a shrubby willow. Below is a small (American) willow in winter, from Estes Park, Colorado, and you can see why settlers might name a small American dogwood after a willow. Some sources call red osier dogwood  red dogwood or red-twig dogwood, dropping the obscure term osier.

willow in winter
A willow in winter
The likeness to willow has two aspects beyond the look: the branches could be woven like willow and the bark has an analgesic that reduces pain like the salicylic acid of willow bark. 

The supple branches of red osier dogwood could, like willow, be used in weaving. Native Americans in the Far West made fish traps from it, but Moerman, compiling Native American uses, did not report many other groups weaving with it. But see all these examples of baskets of red osier dogwood: link. Beyond weaving, Native Americans all across the continent found red osier dogwood a useful plant for making arrows, fish hooks, salmon tethering poles, drying frames for small hides and skewers (a nice convergence with European uses.)  

But using the sticks was only a small part of Native American uses of red osier dogwood. The entry on red osier dogwood is much longer than the entries for most plants in Native American Ethnobotany. (Online there are 191 entries link). Those range from eating the fruit to using it for medicines for a variety of complaints to smoking the bark. Even without weaving with it, or reporting they wove with it, Native Americans made extensive use of red osier dogwood!

Red osier dogwood is medically potent enough that it was used for sore eyes, against colds and fevers, for intestinal worms, for headaches, for bleeding nose or mouth and for women after childbirth. The bark contains coronic acid which reportedly has effects similar to salicylic acid (the active ingredient of aspirin). 

Some Native American groups ate red osier dogwood's berries (technically drupes link). The white drupes are eaten by at least 18 bird species but humans should be wary. (See medical uses previous paragraph and below!) The fruits are so bitter that for the most part Native Americans, although they ate them, mixed them with something tastier. My interpretation of the conflicting reports online and in the literature is that you can safely eat a few berries but a large serving may upset your stomach. Fruit chemistry may vary regionally over the plant's very large range, so pay attention to what the tribes in your region did with them since that information is increasingly available.

The most important use of red osier dogwood among Native Americans was as a supplement to or replacement for tobacco. In the contexts where tobaccco was smoked ceremonially, the inner bark of red osier dogwood was traditionally smoked, for example by the Lakota and Blackfoot. Often it was mixed with the tobacco. (link) Red osier dogwood smoke reportedly was aromatic, pungent and contained compounds strong enough to cause drowsiness or even stupefication.

Red osier dogwood is a beautiful little shrub, quite different in appearance from typical dogwood trees. It played an important ceremonial in a long list of North American tribes and they found many practical uses for it as well. Enjoy seeing it!

Comments and corrections welcome.

Fernald, M. L. 1970. Gray's manual of botany. 8th edition. D. Van Nostrand Company, New York.
Harrington, H. D. 1967. Edible native plants of the Rocky Mountains. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Kershaw, L. 2000. Edible and medicinal plants of the Rockies. Lone Pine Press, Edmonton, Alberta.
Millspaugh, C. F. 1972. American medicinal plants. Originally published 1892. Dover, New York, New York.
Missouri Plant Finder. Cornus sericea 'Cardinal' link Accessed 3/5/17.
Moerman, D. E. 1998. Native American ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland Oregon.
Murrell, Z.E. and D. B. Poindexter. 24. Cornaceae Berchtold & J. Presl Dogwood Family. Flora of North America link
Willard, T. 1992. Edible and medicinal plants of the Rocky Mountains and neighboring territories. White Rose College of Natural Healing, Calgary, Alberta.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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