Rough Leaf & Gray Dogwood

Rough leaf dogwood (Cornus drummondii) is a relatively fast-growing native deciduous shrub that makes a wonderful wildlife corridor and blocking hedge. But you must (1) exclude the unwanted woody species that will try to occupy the same habitat, especially the ubiquitous and horrible Asian bush honeysuckle and (2) understand that the hedge will be at least as deep as tall.

Rough leaf dogwood is often confused with the very similar gray dogwood (C. racemosa). The trunk diameter of old rough leaf dogwoods can exceed three inches and individual specimens can get 10-15+ feet tall, but mostly the plants are 10-12 feet. Gray dogwood is about half that size. The characteristic and name-based hairs found on the lower leaf surface of rough leaf dogwood can be absent by late summer. Moreover, I would call the feel soft pubescent rather than rough. The bark on older trunks of both species is thin and scaly, whereas the intermediate aged stems are smooth and gray. A primary reason neither of these dogwoods are generally popular is that they produce thickets if the running suckers are not removed -- easily done with a shovel or by mowing. However, their aggressiveness (see * below) means they are easily grown. They are indulgent of poor soil and prefer wet conditions, yet are also drought tolerant and can be grown in full sun or moderate shade. Another aspect of these shrubs that many people find unappealing is their asymmetric growth, i.e., orientation favoring one direction. Not the right look for McMansioneers; they clearly prefer the terrible burning bush.

In late spring these dogwoods produce slightly domed clusters of small creamy white flowers that lack the large extrafloral bracts found on the familiar flowering (C. florida) and kousa (C. kousa) dogwoods. Another distinguishing feature is that flowers of gray and rough leaf dogwood are moderately fragrant; somewhat musky and considered unpleasant by many people. Like practically all dogwoods, the leaves of both are opposite, and the venation is arcuate. Fall color is a lovely burgundy with some basal hints of gold. The coloration often starts early and is protracted. The simple leaves frequently develop spotting (see pic) caused by a fungal foliar pathogen; yet another characteristic many people find unacceptable. The lesions are more likely in shaded situations and in rainy years but can be controlled by repeated application of a fungicide. However, I DO NOT recommend spraying with a fungicide as the spotting does not seem to hurt the plant AND fungicides are harmful to a broad range of non-fungal organisms and especially to aquatic systems. To my eye the spots give the plant an interesting freckled look. The lovely white fruit is commonly referred to as a berry but technically it is a drupe since single seeded. The fruit stem (peduncle and pedicle) as well as the main newer growth of the terminal stems are a lovely red -- colored new stem growth is characteristic of many dogwoods utilized for landscaping. The white fruits with a black spotted dimple are gorgeous set against the red supporting branches. The black spot is the remnant calyx. Birds are very fond of the fruit, a key reason specimens are often nearly fruitless by fall. The plants also provide excellent wildlife shelter.

Gray and rough leaf dogwood are underutilized!!! You should consider them, but be forewarned that they will not be available in most garden centers. Not to worry, these desirables are easy to transplant when small and common in the wild landscape, especially along wet roadsides and stream banks. If not your land, seek permission first.

* Avoid employing the word invasive to describe these dogwoods since purists (AKA the plant police) are attempting to commandeer that term for use to characterize only naturalizing non-natives like mulberry, burning bush, et al. So, trumpet vine and rough leaf dogwood are aggressive while burning bush and bush honeysuckle are invasive. But, if you encountered the same plants in eastern Asia the descriptor would need to be reversed. Yet another us vs them label. Wonder how Orwell might have described this usurping and delineation? I can tell you how many gardeners feel about the specificity (i.e., different species doing the same thing {unwanted & acting the same way} but being told that the action should be called something else based on nativity). That answer is confused. Horrible is horrible regardless of place of origin.