The dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) is a shrub belonging to the Cornaceae family. It’s closely related to the better-known Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) and is therefore also called the bloody dogwood. This plant grows wild in all regions of Italy, from the coast to the mountains, as it is extremely hardy and adaptable. Its hardiness makes it perfect for garden cultivation, for creating hedges, or even as standalone specimens.
Let’s get to know the botanical characteristics of Cornus sanguinea and the techniques for organic cultivation.
Description of Dogwood
In nature, dogwood appears as a dense, bushy shrub with deciduous leaves, reaching heights of 2 to 4 meters. The Cornus sanguinea species has a strong tendency to produce basal shoots, so if left unchecked, it can become invasive. Alternatively, it can be cultivated as a small tree, reaching heights of up to 10 meters, but it needs to be trained with a single main stem while continually removing the shoots.
Stems, Branches, and Shoots
Due to their great strength and flexibility, young red shoots were historically used for making baskets. The shrub consists of a series of erect, sparsely branched, and extremely flexible stems. Younger branches are green and slightly hairy, but they turn purplish or reddish-brown with age. In adulthood, they become smooth and brown. The wood of the thicker stems is very hard and was used in the countryside to make ladders and other tools. The bark of thicker stems is gray with thin cracks both horizontally and longitudinally. In the past, dogwood bark was used in herbal medicine for its medicinal properties.
Dogwood leaves grow in opposite pairs on the branches, with short, sturdy petioles that are either slightly hairy or occasionally smooth. They are oval-elliptical in shape, narrowing to a wedge at the base and tapering to a long point at the tip. The margin is perfectly smooth. The upper surface of the leaves is light green and smooth, while the lower surface is pubescent. The veins on the leaves are evident, including the central and secondary veins (3-5), which have an arched and partly converging pattern at the apex. Before falling, with the first winter chill, dogwood leaves turn a beautiful red, adding charm to the autumn landscape. This characteristic enhances its value as an ornamental plant.
The flowers of bloody dogwood are clustered in an umbrella-like inflorescence at the tips of young branches. The calyx is divided into 4 small teeth. The corolla consists of 4 white, lanceolate, and sharp-tipped petals, alternating with 4 stamens. Flowering is abundant and prolonged, occurring in late spring, between June and July. In favorable seasons, a second flowering can occur in September or October. The flowers are showy and fragrant. Being rich in pollen and nectar, they are an excellent resource for bees, which collect them in abundance. This makes them valuable not only in the countryside but also in gardens.
Fruits and Seeds
The fruit of dogwood is a small, globular drupe, initially green but turning blackish-blue when fully ripe, which occurs between September and October. The pulp is reddish-purple, hence the common name “bloody dogwood.” Inside, the drupe contains a pit that, in turn, houses two seeds. The fruit is not poisonous but does not have a pleasant taste and can cause diarrhea when consumed fresh. In the past, it was used to extract oil for use as lamp fuel or in the preparation of natural soaps.
Cultivating Dogwood as an Ornamental Plant
In recent years, dogwood has found a place in Italian gardens as an ornamental plant. Its rapid growth, hardiness, abundant flowering, and autumn colors make it appreciated for this purpose. It’s excellent for forming dense hedges or covering challenging areas such as steep borders, but it can also be cultivated as a standalone shrub. When grown as a tree, it requires significant effort in continuously removing shoots. Container cultivation is not very suitable, although possible, as it requires frequent repotting and, most importantly, consistent watering, which is unnecessary when grown in the ground. Special varieties have been developed for garden cultivation, with more compact growth and vibrant colors. To identify them at nurseries, ask for Cornus sanguinea var. Winter flame and Cornus sanguinea var. Midwinter fire.
Soil and Climatic Requirements
Dogwood is a plant with no specific climatic limitations because it is a deciduous species that goes dormant during winter. It can withstand frost and can be cultivated from lowlands to low mountains. For abundant flowering, it requires sunny positions, but it also thrives in partial shade. The ideal soil is a medium loam, fresh, and rich in organic matter, but it can also grow in poorer soils.
To start cultivating dogwood, you can either purchase a plant from a nursery, use seeds, or use shoots. Let’s look at the different techniques.
The best time to plant dogwood in the garden is in autumn or at the latest, the end of winter, before the start of vegetative growth. Autumn transplanting allows the plant to establish quickly. In the planting hole, it’s advisable to add organic fertilizer such as well-rotted manure, domestic compost, or worm humus. If you want to create a dense hedge using multiple plants, maintain a distance of 1.5 meters between each plant. In the first year after transplanting, irrigation may be necessary during prolonged dry periods.
Dogwood seeds can be easily collected in early autumn from wild plants. Simply clean them of pulp, wash, dry, and place them outdoors under a layer of sand and soil. In spring, as temperatures rise naturally, the first shoots will appear, which can then be transferred to a small pot. The young plant should be grown in a pot until the final autumn transplant.
The simplest method to cultivate dogwood is by starting from shoots with a portion of the root. These should be collected in autumn and placed in a container with a mixture of soil and sand. In spring, they will have a guaranteed vegetative growth and should be cultivated in a pot until the ideal planting time in autumn.
Pruning dogwood is aimed at maintaining the bushy shrub according to your needs. If there is plenty of space to occupy, the plant can essentially be left to grow freely. However, if you want to contain it, you will need to prune the shoots. The stems can also be topped, but it’s best to do this after fruiting, in autumn or winter, to avoid losing the following year’s blossoms. In general, an adult plant can tolerate any type of cutting and will produce even more vigorous shoots. This means that, under certain conditions, this plant can become invasive, so we recommend not planting it in small gardens.
Pests and Diseases of Bloody Dogwood
Among the pests of bloody dogwood, be cautious in spring about the presence of aphids, which should be combated at the first signs of infestation using soft potassium soap. On the foliage, you might also find scale insects, which can be eliminated by using white mineral oil and frequent washing with potassium soap. The diseases that affect bloody dogwood are fungal in nature and occur only in cases of excessive water stagnation. Ensuring adequate drainage of excess water will result in healthy and vigorous growth of the plant.