A Tale of Two Shrubs

Right now is the showiest time of the year for two very worthy but perhaps unspectacular shrubs: Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) and Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa).

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Gray Dogwood flowers.

There are several Gray Dogwoods in our back garden. The best specimen is about 15′ tall and grows near the base of a Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila).

(And for those of you who feel the need to tell me what a horrible tree Siberian Elm is – back off! It was there when we moved in, OK? Also, it’s home to many insects, which earns it frequent visits from woodpeckers. Oh, do I seem touchy about this? Maybe it’s all the helpful comments from the Tree Police.)

Anyway, Michael Dirr once referred to Gray Dogwood as “a sleeping giant in the world of deciduous shrubs”, and predicted that “one day it will emerge with a vengeance.” While you can find a couple of cultivars of Gray Dogwood at many garden centers, I would have to say that this particular giant seems to be dozing still.

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Even so, in June my Gray Dogwoods are covered with creamy white flower clusters. You can see (I hope) that I’ve pruned this one so it has more the habit of a small tree.

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When mature the foliage is a rich green with a slightly bluish cast.

The flowers are replaced by berries that turn white beginning in late summer. The berries are an important food for migrating birds. You can’t really say the berries are ornamental because you don’t see them – they are eaten pretty much immediately after ripening

Plant books usually say that the red pedicels remaining after the berries are eaten are very showy. This is the kind of thing we say when we are trying to be polite. Neither is the fall leaf color particularly flashy.

Still: profuse white flower clusters, attractive foliage, food for migrating birds – I think this justifies the existence of Gray Dogwood in any garden. Oh, and it’s a host for Spring Azure butterflies.

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On to the Red Elderberries. They have pyramind-shaped clusters of cream-colored flowers in spring. However, they are at their showiest when the bright red berries ripen in June.

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Though toxic to people, the berries are supposed to be eaten by many birds. Not in my garden, however, where they mostly dry up on the bush. The cluster above, though, looks like it may have been browsed a bit by someone.

Why don’t birds eat more Red Elderberries in our garden? Have they not read the books saying they are supposed to? Should I erect a skyward-facing sign that reads THIS IS FOOD and can be read from the air?

Some people think Red Elderberry looks a bit weedy, but I think the compound leaves have a tropical flair. The soft stems grow very fast, and are favored by many insects for overwintering.

Have you grown Gray Dogwood or Red Elderberry in your garden?

29 Comments on “A Tale of Two Shrubs

  1. I had never heard of red elderberry before, and interesting that the berries are already ripe. Here we have Sambucus nigra all around us in the countryside, but the berries ripen much later (end of August to September) and are almost black. The birds love them!

    • We also have a black Elderberry – Sambucus canadensis. The Red Elderberry fruit ripens in early summer, S. canadensis ripens at the same time as your S. nigra.

  2. I’ve never heard of anyone actually planting a Siberian elm. Those trees just kind of happen. 😉 There are several mature Siberian elms in my own backyard, and while they are usually considered “trash” trees, they’re still TREES, so they’re welcome here. We have tons of birds and squirrels–and also, as you mentioned, many woodpeckers. And we get some lovely shade, too.

    Your comment about the Tree Police made me smile, but it also makes me wonder, yet again, at the eagerness of so many gardeners to criticize the choices of others. I’ve heard, “Oh, you shouldn’t have planted that lily-of-the-valley. It’ll take over!” and “Stella de Oro is such a COMMON plant. Your front yard will look like the entrance to a shopping mall,” and “Why are you cutting back/not cutting back your perennials in the fall? Any SERIOUS gardener would tell you…” and so on. And it hasn’t happened to me, but a lot of people have actually discovered that plants have been dug up and stolen from their gardens!

    All of this confuses me no end. I want to believe that anyone who has loved and tended a garden is, by definition, a NICE person. But we have some real stinkers among us, don’t we?
    😉

    • I still think the average gardener is nicer than the average person, but there are elements of snobbery and bossiness. Many of the houses in our neighborhood were built in the 1920s and 30s and the trees planted by the builders were typically Silver Maples, Siberian Elms, and other fast growing species.

  3. I have never grown either of these but there is a striking form of Sambucus called Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’ with white flowers which is rather striking that I would have if I had any room left! I do grow Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’ which is a very popular shrub in the UK..

  4. Everything you’d like to know about red elderberry: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/shrub/samrac/all.html
    And the berries, when ripe and cooked were/are eaten by people, but apparently they are not the most flavorful thing and require somewhat complicated handling. This person in Canada has a complete entry on making fruit leather, and the last 2 paragraphs detail Native American treatment of the berries.

    • Thanks for the info. Apparently the berries were eaten by Native Americans, as you say, but they had to be cooked first. I think I’ll leave mine for the birds, though.

  5. Could it be your area has been dry and the berries shrivel before of use? Our area has been in drought the last number of years and the Viburnum berries never make it far enough along before they shrivel and are no use to the birds. Before they were eaten up really quickly, but not anymore. Your Red Elderberries still look juicy, but maybe other garden choices are tempting them.

    • It hasn’t really been dry … I just think the berries shrivel and drop to the ground because they are never eaten. I have several cranberrybush viburnum and those berries are eaten very quickly, even though I’ve read they birds won’t eat them until late in winter.

  6. They are both interesting shrubs. The red elderberry is native, isn’t it? You often see it in wild areas in Southern Ontario, but not here.

    • Yes, both are native. There is a European Red Elderberry, but also a North American. The Dogwood is only in North America.

  7. Those berries are definitely being eaten, sometimes birds take a while to catch on. I loved your defence of the Siberian Elm. Go Jason!!!xxx

    • It’s very true that birds sometimes take a while before they adapt to a new food. For example, at first only the Orioles would eat the jelly from the feeder, now many birds do. We go through about two jars per week.

  8. I don’t have to grow them in my garden because they’re everywhere here and are weeds to many people. My favorite of the native dogwoods is silky dogwood with it’s blue and white Chinese porcelain berries.
    I can never get a good photo of red elderberry berries because the birds eat them the second they turn red. I’ve been trying for years!

    • Well, you can come out here and take pictures of my Red Elderberry while the birds are still learning they’re good to eat.

  9. I am not familiar with the Gray Dogwood. Thanks for the introduction. It is lovely and deserves a place in the garden center!

  10. Intersting to read about these trees–neither are in my garden. I looked up Gray Dogwood and it is apparently quite rare in NC, but that said, where it is rarely found is very nearby where I live. Will have to look for it.

  11. Pingback: A Tale of Two Shrubs — gardeninacity | Old School Garden

  12. i don’t know either of these, but they both seem like they’d be great additions for a wildlife gardener.

  13. I love the flowers on the Gray Dogwood, and all dogwoods, as they are not that common here. I had to chuckle at the Tree Police…so they are everywhere! Here in tree-lined Canberra everyone has an opinion about what should be grown and what shouldn’t be grown. Enough already!

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