Gray Dogwood Plant Profile

An Adaptable Native Shrub That Should Be Allowed to Grow Freely

Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa) in bloom

Frank Mayfield / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Dogwoods are either trees or shrubs. Gray dogwood is a native shrub. Dogwoods, even native species, are often affected by many pests and diseases. Not the case with the gray dogwood; it’s a healthy variety that resists the diseases common to many dogwoods. The gray dogwood’s numerous small, creamy white flowers are less showy than the ones of the flowering dogwood, but it compensates by being relatively disease-free and highly adaptable to many difficult conditions, such as dry, wet, or poor soil.

If you are looking for a low-maintenance shrub in a non-formal landscape, gray dogwood is a good choice. It will also make the birds happy—almost 100 species of birds eat the berries, and use it for shelter and nesting.

However, bear in mind that gray dogwood needs space to spread in every direction. It sends out rapidly growing suckers from the original plant so it should be planted in a naturalized setting where it is allowed to form colonies. It is excellent for screening, or planted along ponds and embankments, where it provides erosion control.

The bloom of the gray dogwood in May or June is relatively short, about seven to ten days. In August or September, the shrub produces white berries with a bluish tint. Chances are you won’t even notice them because birds voraciously eat them in no time.

It is not until after the berries are gone that the gray dogwood displays its most attractive feature: the red fruit stalks called pedicels which remain on the shrub until late fall or early winter. The one- and two-year-old stems of the gray dogwood are reddish brown. In the third year, their color changes to gray.

Botanical Name Cornus racemosa
Common Name Grey dogwood, Panicled dogwood
Plant Type Perennial shrub
Mature Size 10 to 15 feet height, 10 to 15 feet spread
Sun Exposure Full sun to part shade
Soil Type Sandy, Silt, Clay, Loamy
Soil pH 5 to 8
Bloom Time Late spring
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 4 to 8
Native Area Eastern Eastern North America
Berries of the grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa)
Berries of the grey dogwood (Cornus racemosa). Evergreen Planet / Getty Images

How to Grow Gray Dogwood

Gray dogwood should be planted in a location where it can grow freely. To keep it under control in a formal garden setting requires regular pruning.

In a suitable location, there is very little maintenance, perhaps an occasional pruning to shape and give it direction. The shrub itself has a medium growth rate but the suckers that grow profusely from its multi-stemmed base grow fast, three to five feet during the growing season.

As it ages, the shrub can become a bit leggy. At that point, you can rejuvenate it by completely cutting it down to the ground, leaving just a few inches. It will take a couple of years for the shrub to regrow to its original height. It will be fuller, and it will also develop more suckers as a result of the pruning.

Light

Gray dogwood grows in a wide range of light conditions. Full sun or partial sun or shade is best, however it also tolerates shady locations with four hours or less of sunlight.

Soil

Consistently moist, well-drained soil is ideal but gray dogwood stands out by its adaptability to any type of soil, dry or wet, clay or alkaline, even problematic soil such as compacted or poor soil.

Water

Watering is only required after planting in the absence of rain until the shrub is established. Gray dogwood has a wide range of moisture tolerance. It can grow both in wet or occasionally saturated soil, and can withstand even extended periods of dryness. 

Red fruit stalks remain on the shrub until late fall or early winter
Grey dogwood has attractive red fruit stalks. Cavan Images / Getty Images

Temperature and Humidity

As a native plant to a north as Maine and as south as Georgia, gray dogwood is well adapted to both subzero winters and hot, humid summers.

Fertilizer

If grown in humus-rich soil with plenty of organic matter, there is no need to fertilize, in fact, over-fertilizing can damage the dogwood. If the soil lacks nutrients (do a soil test to know exactly what it needs) fertilize it in the spring with a granular slow-release fertilizer high in nitrogen, such as a 16-4-8 general-purpose fertilizer, following the directions for amounts on the fertilizer bag.

Also fertilize the area around the shrub, about 1.5 times the diameter of the branch spread. If the shrub has a spread of four feet, you should broadcast the fertilizer in a band at least six feet around. This will encourage the gray dogwood with its spreading habit to send out more suckers.

Planting and Transplanting

Gray dogwood should be planted as a dormant plant in the early spring, before May. Fall planting is not recommended because the seedlings have a much lower rate of survival.

Common Pests/Diseases

Unlike other dogwoods, gray dogwood has few disease or pest problems. It is sometimes affected by leaf spot.

Tree Varieties

While gray dogwood is usually grown as a multi-stemmed shrub, sometimes tree forms with one to several trunks are also available. These do not grow suckers from the base.