Red Osier Dogwood


Common along riverbanks and in moist meadows, the 1–3 m tall shrub often has bright red bark. In June it produces clusters of flat topped white flowers that mature into white berries 4–6 mm across.

While juicy, the edible fruit is very bitter and sour, but according to Kershaw it was eaten fresh, sometimes mixed with sweeter fruit such as saskatoons, or dried for later use. (83) Johnston reports the inner bark was “made into a tea, and taken for various complaints.” (49) Kershaw clarifies: the tea treated digestive disorders because of its laxative effect, and analysis of the inner bark has shown it contains coronic acid, an analgesic. (83)

Johnston describes an elaborate procedure required to turn the inner bark into material that was added to tobacco. The outer bark was warmed and scraped off, then the inner bark peeled upward into curly clusters—still attached to the branch—six or eight inches long. The branch was then driven into the ground over hot coals, and the curls roasted until dry. Johnston further reports that one researcher into Blackfoot customs claims the Blackfoot did not use this tobacco additive. (49) As smoking material, the bark was said to be “both aromatic and pungent, and to have a narcotic effect that caused stupefaction.” (Kershaw 83)

Cornus sericea may have been complicit in another human vice. Johnston explains that gambling wheels were made by covering a circle of split beaver teeth with dogwood bark. (49)


Growth habit and range: Red osier dogwood is a common, multi-stemmed shrub growing to a height of up to 3 meters, which occurs in moist sites throughout the province. It often forms a thicket.

Description: This plant is notable for the smooth, red bark of young twigs, which becomes greyish and roughened on older stems. The leaves are a simple, oval shape, with a smooth margin, and they occur opposite each other on the stem. Each leaf measures 4–12 cm in length, and shows prominent, linear veins ending in a sharply pointed leaf tip, and a short leaf stalk. The leaf colour is dark green on the top surface, and lighter on the somewhat hairy under surface. In autumn, the foliage turns red to purple in colour.

The tiny, creamy to greenish flowers are borne in a flat-topped cluster measuring 2–5 cm in diameter in May and June. Each of the four sepals per flower is 2–3 mm in length. The flower center is yellow, with four white stamens. The fruits are white to green or blue-tinged, berry-like drupes each measuring 6–9 mm in diameter. One or two seeds are produced per fruit. The fruits have a bitter taste, but are edible.


  • Johnston, Alex. 1987. Plants and the Blackfoot. Occasional Paper No. 15., Lethbridge Historical Society, AB. 

  • Kershaw, Linda. 2000. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rockies. Lone Pine Publishing, AB.