You’ll know red-osier dogwood from its red-to-burgundy bark and twigs, which is a favorite among gardeners who appreciate a splash of color during the gray of winter.
The shrub grows 4½ feet to 20 feet tall and can be found from British Columbia down through California and over to the East Coast.
Wildlife also is drawn to this perennial shrub, which puts out clusters of flowers that are white or greenish in color from June to August. The white berries — they ripen in late summer and can stay on the plants into winter — are a favorite of birds, including scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings and wild turkey. Black bears, squirrels and beavers are among the mammals that eat the fruit and foliage, while deer, mountain goats and elk eat the twigs and foliage.
While the berries have been described as bitter and inedible, they were a food source among North American tribal people, although not those along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Coastal people used the bark and twigs medicinally. That includes the Straits Salish, who used the bark to make a tonic tea. Tribes in California peeled the twigs and used them as toothbrushes, while the Apache and others used the inner bark as part of a tobacco mixture that they put into sacred pipes. The Ojibwa and Chippewa used the bark as a dye.
Sources: Local naturalist Rae Edwards; “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast,” by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon; Washington Native Plant Society; United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service