Here at Carolina Native Nursery in Western North Carolina, Cornus amomum (silky dogwood) is a plant that we’re used to seeing on stream restoration project lists and in rain gardens plans, but it’s one that the home gardener doesn’t use nearly enough. Yes, it can get a little big (8 to 12 feet at maturity), and yes, it can be a little unruly as it ages. But we shouldn’t forget how beautiful it is, and how easy it is to keep it under control in the garden. It’s a wonderful shrub with fantastic color, a great habit and form, and it supports the insect, bird and animal populations by acting as a food source.
If you’ve got some space to let it grow, silky dogwood is a great native shrub that you won’t even have to think twice about. It does appreciate a wet spot in full to part sun, but you can grow it almost anywhere as long as it gets a few hours of direct sun and a drink of water. It performs well in wet or dry soil, sunny or shady spots, and you can cut it back whenever it starts to get a little larger than you’d like. It is a fast grower with little need for fertilization, although a nice punch of phosphorus will help it bloom and berry more profusely; a little sprinkle of organic nitrogen will keep the leaves green and happy. Treating with a preventive fungicide or an oil will also help keep leaf spot and powdery mildew to a minimum. And if you see some scale or webworms, just apply an early spring dose of horticultural oil—this will keep them at bay so you can ensure a pest-free plant.
Silky dogwood takes its name from the silky hairs that grow on young twigs and on the undersides of its leaves. Get out your hand lens and take a look. (Ahh, the magical world of plants under a microscope— that’s a topic for another Field Note!) With its purplish, red stems, delicate white cymes of flowers, blue/white berries and fantastic maroon-red foliage color in the fall, it makes for a wonderful wildlife attractant and lovely specimen plant. If you don’t want to worry about pruning, or watching it outgrow your space, let it go in the woodland garden and enjoy the thickets that will form over the years.
You’ll delight in visits from your local bird population, who’ll enjoy the berries. In our area, this includes woodpeckers, sparrows, cardinals, robins and more. Not only are you supporting the bird population, but you’re inviting Celastrina ladon (spring azure) to use it for both nectar feeding and as a host plant. Caterpillars of the beautifully blue spring azure will usually feed only on the flowers to plump up before metamorphosis.
Besides the insects and birds, deer rely on Cornus amomum to get through the winter months. It serves as a major food source for them, as well as for rabbits. Plant it with the intention of being a safe haven for wildlife, and they will come. Keep your binoculars out, because you’re in for a treat when it comes to the number of pollinators and birds you’ll see savoring the plant.
The next time you’re looking for a great plant for an upcoming project or garden plan, give Cornus amomum a try! It’s a winner!