Most dogwoods are popular for spectacular white or pink spring bloom prior to foliation. Redtwig dogwood, Cornus sericea, is an odd one though. It is a ‘dog’wood that is appropriately grown for colorful twig ‘bark’. It blooms later than other dogwoods, and after foliation. The one to two inch wide trusses of tiny pale white flowers lack the flashy bracts that make other dogwoods so colorful.
Another difference is that, unlike more familiar dogwoods, redtwig dogwood naturally grows as a shrubby riparian thicket rather than as a small tree. Long limber branches can grow to more than fifteen feet high only by leaning into other trees or shrubbery. In home gardens, they typically get coppiced or pollarded just before foliating in spring, to develop twiggy growth for color next winter.
After a bit of autumn chill and defoliation, young stems of well exposed wild redtwig dogwood are a delightful glossy ruddy brown. Twigs of garden varieties are richer cinnamon red, rusty orange, soft yellow, orange blushed pale yellow, or yellowish green. Color is subdued by shade. Some cultivars have variegated foliage. Autumnal foliar color is more impressive in more severe climates.
Very few arborists in America condone the extreme pruning techniques known as pollarding and coppicing. Both techniques essentially ruin trees, and deprive them of their natural form. Affected trees likely require such procedures to be repeated every few years or annually. Otherwise, they are likely to succumb to resulting structural deficiency. Restoration of such trees is rarely practical.
Pollarding is severe pruning to remove all except the main trunk and a few or perhaps several main limbs. Coppicing is even more severe, and leaves only a stump. Both are done while subjects are dormant through winter. Most or all new growth that develops is spring is concentrated around pruning wounds of the previous winter. Some coppiced stumps generate growth from the roots.
If pollarded or coppiced annually, all growth that developed during the previous season gets pruned cleanly away to where it grew from since the previous procedure. Distended ‘knuckles’ develop at the ends of pollarded limbs or coppiced stumps as the pruning is repeated for a few years. ‘English’ pollarding leaves a well oriented stub of any desired length to slowly elongate each knuckle.
Pruning wounds should be as flush to each knuckle as possible, without intrusive stubble. The many small pruning wounds left on each distended knuckle will compartmentalize (heal) efficiently as new growth develops during the following season. Pruning below a knuckle might seem to be more practical, but leaves a single but big wound that could decay before it gets compartmentalized.
Delaying pruning for a few years creates bigger wounds, and allows innately structurally compromised stems to get heavy.
Pollarding and coppicing were developed a long time ago to produce kindling, fence stakes, cane for basketry, and fodder for livestock, as well as silkworms. Nowadays, it is done to contain big trees, enhance the size and color of leaves, produce juvenile foliage, produce colorful twiggy growth, or prevent unwanted bloom or fruit. Not many trees are conducive to such severe techniques.