The leaves at this time of the year are beautiful causing us to overlook many low growing colorful berries. This fall they seem to glow like tiny holiday lights along the edge of the trail. The tartan honeysuckle is a bright red, the coralberries are a dull maroon, and bittersweet berries have a yellow orange shell that open to show a reddish orange interior. Roughleaf dogwood berries are glossy white- they seem very abundant this year. The heavy rains of last spring allowed the shrubs to produce many small white flowers in early June at the tip of the new twig growth. Now small ivory white berries, about one-fourth inch in diameter, are hanging down in clusters from the end of red twigs. It is called “roughleaf” because of small hairs that are on the surface of the leaf give it a coarse texture.
Roughleaf dogwood is a shrub or small tree that grows ten to twelve feet tall. It is very common in the Midwest. It forms thickets along roadsides, fence rows, at the edge of woodlots, and at the edge of pastures. It can grow in most any soil type, but it does best in slightly acidic moist areas near the banks of streams or near wetlands. It is a fast growing and long lived plant that can withstand the extreme cold and drought in Iowa. In some fields it can become a weed and difficult to control.
The wood is very dense and is used for small wooden articles, especially shuttle blocks and charcoal. The roots and underground stems are very effective in reducing soil erosion and it is also makes a good hedge for a windbreak. There are about fifty species of the dogwood family worldwide; several varieties are planted as ornamentals, such as red-twig dogwood and flowering dogwood.
Deer browse on the twigs and foliage of the roughleaf dogwood and the branches provide nesting habitat for sparrows and goldfinches. Many species of songbirds, turkey, quail, and squirrels eat the berries, but to my taste buds they are very bitter. According to the book “Wild Flowers of Iowa’s Woodlands”, Chippewa Indians used the roots to make a red dye. They made a tea with the berries and bark of the shrub using it to reduce fevers and treat babies for colic. They also chewed on the twigs to prevent tooth decay. The bark of the Flowering Dogwood, a southern species, was used a substitute for quinine during the Civil War. A European member of the dogwood family has oil in the seed that was used to make soap.
The source of the family name, dogwood, in not clear. It may have come from a brew made from the bark of a European species that was used to wash mangy dogs or perhaps from the Old English “dagge”, meaning dagger or sharp pointed object, because the hardness of the wood favored such uses.
To a hiker on a trail the small white berries of the roughleaf dogwood add color to the scenery and are another facet to the beauty of fall in Iowa.