Why Get to know this plant:
If you have any interest in making arts and crafts from plants growing wild near you, then you definitely need to get to know this flexible beauty. This water loving shrub grows along stream banks and lakes and is important in maintaining the soil. It grows quickly in the spring; new shoots up from the ground or else if well established will continue from past years’ branches. Branches are very flexible and will not break (if handled properly), they can be made into frames for dreamcatchers (read here), festive wreathes or woven into contrasting red rims and designs for basket making. This plant also has medicinal use and potential for practical cosmetics as well. Medicinally the inner bark has history of use for pain and fever. The soft white inner bark was dried and used for smoking as it is said to have both aromatic and a slight narcotic effect. I have not worked with this plant for its medicinal properties but would be excited to do so in the future.
As potential for home cosmetics, red osier dogwood has a few potentialities: the dry and powdered bark has been used for cleaning teeth, gums and is found to whiten the teeth. The juice of the white berries has a history of use for hair conditioner to moisten and treat damaged hair by many First Nations in Canada.
Energetically the red osier dogwood is connected to the dream world and to protection, it is therefore very fitting that it is used to make the frame for dreamcatchers.
Where This Plant grows:
Red osier dogwood grows along stream banks, river sides and lake edges. It can also grow along roadsides particularly where there is a ditch that fills with water for part of the year. They are fairly common to see and once you recognize the deep red stems you will start noticing this plant all around you.
How to Identify:
Red osier dogwood is a shrub growing up to 6 m tall (though normally around 1-2 m) with twigs that turn bright red to purple throughout the growing season. Clusters of small flowers, 2-4 cm wide, without showy bracts, are white and bloom from May to August. Fruits are white, are about 1 cm across and have large flattened stones as pits. Leaves are opposite, simple and pointed with leaf veins following the smooth lead edges toward the tips. Leaves are 5-10 cm long with the very prominent parallel veins. They become red in the autumn before they fall off the tree.
If you are gathering branches to make a frame or wreathe, then focus on harvesting the straight and long shoots that grow as long as you can get without a fork in them. Inner bark is used for certain medicinal actions. The white bark is used for cleaning and whitening teeth, and the berries can be used to condition the hair.
Tips from Experience:
If you are making a frame, use the freshly harvested stems right away, and do not let them sit overnight before folding the frame. This will likely result in a broken attempt.
When harvesting be sure to bring clippers so that you can make a clean cut on the stems (which is better than breaking which makes it harder for the plant to heal from its harvest). As always do not take too much from any one plant. The stems carry the life force of this special plant and must be taken only 1-2 from a small plant, or 3ish from a larger shrub.
MacKinnon et all. (2009) Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada. Lone Pine publishing.
Pojar & MacKinnon (1994) Plants of Coastal British Columbia: including Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Lone Pine Publishing
Young, D., Rogers, R., Willier, R. (2015) A Cree Healder and His Medicine Bundle: Relevantions of Indigenous Wisdom. Healing Plants, Practices and Stories. North Atlantic Books.