Gray Dogwood is a hardy shrub, native to North America, that helps feed pollinators and birds. It can survive in harsh conditions and grows well without fertilizers or other inputs.
We raise honey bees in the sand prairie of Minnesota. It’s a harsh landscape and many of the traditional “bee plants” struggle, so we look to native trees and shrubs to provide a lot of our bee forage. One really great (and often overlooked) shrub is Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa.)
In our climate, they gray dogwoods grows along the forest edge and in thickets near swamps. They will sucker and fill out an area and seem to be quite tolerant of drought and semi-shade. They can be anywhere from 6-12 feet tall.Gray Dogwood, also known as northern swamp dogwood, grows in a similar shape and the same environments as a sumac shrub. You will be able to tell the difference when you get up close. The white flowers and white fruit hang from red stems that are reminiscent of elderberry. The leaves are opposite and sometimes appear “whorled”. Like many other dogwoods, the fruit is not edible for humans but is relished by upland game birds and songbirds. Birds clear out the berries before winter and the red stems hang beautifully against the snowy backdrop.
The branches are grayish brown. The plants respond well to coppicing and will put up new stems as a result – especially during a wet year.
Gray Dogwood flowers smell like musky skunk. For a while, I thought the plants were named “dogwood” because they smell like “dog breath” or “wet dog” but there are many varieties of dogwood and gray dogwood is the only one I have noticed that smells bad.
Even though it smells “like dog,” we are happy this plant exists on our property. It holds the sand to prevent erosion, creates substantial biomass, grows without attention, and provides ample pollen and nectar for honey bees and native pollinators.
We do not sell the seeds for gray dogwood, but maybe in the future we will offer cuttings. Almost all dogwoods reproduce well from cuttings – just by sticking them in the ground. Not as well as willows, but they still have a very high success rate. If you live in the US, it’s a hardy native worth exploring.
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This article is part of our “trees for bees” series where we feature trees/shrubs that are excellent pollinator forage