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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?