One of Spring’s many pleasures after a winter of subdued color is the flowering of the dogwoods. They are universally enjoyed by humans, and one of the most popular yard trees. We are blessed to have them growing wild in our forests and are very common. It is the state tree of Virginia.
Our native Flowering Dogwood (Cornus Florida) is an understory tree content to grow underneath larger trees, and so it is tolerant of shade. It is classified as a small tree, only growing to around 15 to 25 feet tall. The leaves are oval shaped with a smooth edge, and turn a bright purple in the fall. Bright red berries also appear in the fall, adding to the tree’s beauty. The bark is a reddish brown with a small blocky pattern. The flowers are the crown jewels of the dogwood, providing a tree full of beautiful large white flower with 4 petals tinged with red at their end. Actually, the flower is the green nugget in the middle of the four petals, which aren’t true petals but specialized leaves called bracts. But hey, let’s not let plant physiology get in the way of the beauty of the thing.
Here’s a lovely Easter legend about the tree: the dogwood was once as tall and mighty as the oak, and because of the strength of the wood, was chosen to make the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. The dogwood was so ashamed at this that it begged Jesus for forgiveness. In His compassion for all living things, Jesus took pity on the dogwood and decreed that from then on the tree would be slender and twisted so it could never again be used as a cross. As a reminder, however, the dogwood tree would also bear blossoms in the shape of a cross. In the center of the flower would appear a crown of thorns, and each petal would have nail prints stained with red at its outer edge.
Besides providing a lovely landscape, the native dogwood was used by the Native Americans to time the planting of crops (by their bloom time) and as a medicinal. The bark was boiled and made into an extract to soothe sore muscles. Twigs were used as “chewing sticks”, the forerunner of the toothbrush. When chewed a while the tough fibers at the end of the dogwood twig will separate into a soft brush and can be used to clean teeth. During the Civil War a tea made from root bark was used as a substitute for quinine to treat malaria in the Deep South. Dogwood berries are a very important wildlife food, and the twigs are browsed by deer.
The origin of the name “dogwood” is uncertain, but it may have came from a reference to a European species of dogwood that was used to make skewers, or daggers. It would have been referred to a dag or dagge in old English.
Because of its flowers and small size at maturity, dogwood can fit into even small landscapes, and is relatively easy to grow. It prefers partial shade if it can get it, but can grow in full sun. There are many cultivars out there, including pink and red flowering varieties. There is an unfortunate disease called dogwood anthracnose that has reduced native populations over the past decade.