Gray Dogwood is native to Wisconsin’s woodlands, savannas, and prairies. This versatile shrub plays an essential role in local ecosystems and is an excellent choice for high-quality and degraded habitats. This large-to-medium-sized shrub produces showy clusters of white flowers in spring and equally showy clusters of white fruit in late summer, both of which are a favorite of local wildlife. Cornus racemosa is a terrific choice for restoration projects and fighting invasive species.
Gray Dogwood is a multi-stemmed deciduous shrub that proves versatile in planting locations and uses. This dogwood species makes a great farmstead windbreak, shrub border, or planted alongside streams, ponds, and buildings. It is effective when planted in groups and left alone to spread in naturalized areas or even in native plant gardens. Cornus racemosa also has ornamental value thanks to its showy flowers, fruit, and attractive fall color. This is not a plant for foundation planting or a small lot. Stems can be 3 to 12-feet tall – but the spreading, suckering habit can happen quickly if no adjacent plant competition exists.
This shrub is well-adapted for revegetating disturbed sites and is easily established by direct seeding. Wisconsin has successfully used this plant for revegetating highway corridors and coal mine spoil.
We commonly see Gray Dogwood used in native restoration projects for fighting invasive species. Given its vigorous growth and tendency to colonize, it is particularly useful to combat common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). Its cousin, Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum), is commonly used to choke out buckthorn; however, it is used to combat the Glossy Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula) in wet sites, while Gray Dogwood is predominately used in dry locations. Almost nothing can survive under the established dogwood patch. Go, team Dogwood!
The nectar and pollen provided by the spring flowers attract many insects. Several species of bees are frequent visitors of Gray Dogwood, such as carpenter bees, cuckoo bees, masked bees, and the dogwood specialist bee, the short-tongued bee (Andrena fragilis). Specialist bees have specific relationships with only a few plant species. Some specialist bees forage for pollen that can only be found on a single plant species.
The larva of many moths and butterflies species feed on the foliage of Gray Dogwood, such as both summer azure, unicorn caterpillar, and the white-lined bomolocha. It should be noted that moth and butterfly larva rarely feed on dogwoods to the point of requiring control.
Perhaps the most significant value to the wildlife of Gray Dogwood is the fruit. They are an essential food source to many species of birds, such as the yellow-bellied sapsucker, cedar waxwing, ruffed grouse, common yellowthroat, and several species of tanagers and sparrows. Birds aren’t the only lovers of Dogwood fruit; many mammals, including the raccoon, fox squirrel, striped skunk, black bear, and chipmunks, also enjoy the berries.
The wildlife value doesn’t stop with just the flowers, leaves, or fruit. Its growing habit is also beneficial. When this shrub forms a dense thicket, the branching structure appeals to many birds and small mammals for cover or a nesting site. If you’re lucky, you might find the ground-nesting Timberdoodle using Gray Dogwood as its humble abode.
Caring for this plant is pretty simple as it grows on many sites within its native range. It can be grown in locations with light levels between full sun and part shade. Gray Dogwood is typically an upland forest species, but it does tolerate a moderate soil moisture level. Keep in mind that this dogwood species does not tolerate too much shade. Instead, it prefers areas with thin canopies or openings and tends to do quite well along roads that have cut through woods.
This plant is rhizomatous and reproduces by sprouting from underground stems. If you want to limit growth, remove suckers. Or allow the shrub to grow unrestrained for a naturalized screen or thicket.
Gray dogwood has no serious insect or disease problems that affect this plant’s longevity. The dogwood club gall midge is an occasional pest on this species but is usually not a significant problem that warrants the need for control. The midge causes club or spindle-shaped tubular galls at the tips or along the plant’s stems. In severe infestations, the twig may die, or the tree may be left deformed.
Once the gall has formed, pesticide control is challenging and not worth attempting. Therefore, the only management choice you should make is pruning off the infected branches.
The genus name Cornus comes from the Latin word ‘cornu’ which means “horn.” This is likely in reference to the strength and density of the wood. The specific epithet, racemosa, refers to the flowers being produced in racemes.
Gray Dogwood is one of the more dominant shrubs in oak-hickory forests. Still, you will also find it growing throughout maple-basswood forests, beech-maple forests, and mixed mesophytic forests. Other common woodland comrades include Virginia Creeper, Leatherwood, Common Witchhazel, American Filbert, Chokecherry, and Smooth Sumac.
You’ll also find this shrub inhabiting our prairies, providing a lovely purple contrast against the masses of Goldenrod in autumn.