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Though flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a New World tree, a widespread Appalachian legend links it with the crucifixion. The dogwood was once as tall as the oak, they say, but its wood was used to make the cross that Jesus was crucified on, and forever after it has grown small and crooked, and each of the four, white bracts surrounding the flower is stained with a drop of blood. Farther south, its blooming usually coincides with Easter.

The wood is uncommonly hard, and is still harvested to make spindles for weaving. In the past, it was favored for bearings and wagon wheels, and some people with the time to make things right still like to fashion tool handles from dogwood. One can see how the crucifixion legend got started: nothing but the best for our Lord and Savior! It didn’t hurt that the “flowers” were white and cross-shaped, and that the cluster of true flowers vaguely resembles a crown of thorns.

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According to the new (and excellent) Trees of Pennsylvania: A Complete Reference Guide, by Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy A. Black (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), flowering dogwood

was used by Native Americans to treat children for worms and diarrhea, to counteract poisons, and as an antiseptic and astringent. The roots were also used as a tonic and the twigs were chewed as a sort of early toothbrush. The bark of dogwood roots was sold in apothecary shops in Philadelphia in the mid-1700s as a substitute for quinine for treating ague (malaria). […] Native Americans are reported to have relied on the appearance of the flowers of dogwood to signal the time to plant corn.

I think I like that last piece of folklore much better than crucifixion legend – for one thing, it’s much more likely to be true. Blooming times of native trees and wildflowers are excellent indicators of when to plant.

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Besides, dogwood anthracnose is the real curse afflicting this species. I hear that flowering dogwoods have been virtually eliminated from many more southern forests as a result of this disease, which first appeared in North America in the early 1970s. Its origins are unknown, but chances are good that humans–not a vengeful deity–were responsible for its introduction.

Dogwood berries are sought out by many species of birds and mammals, which inadvertently spread the seeds throughout the woods. Rhoads and Black say that spring azure and red-spotted purple butterflies use dogwood as a source of nectar, but those are just two of many species one can fine on the flowers. But when I took my camera for a walk the other day, I found various species of bees, several small flower scarabs, and some kind of hemipteran (true bug), a pale-green creature that I never would have noticed if I hadn’t been intent on photographing the bower of joined bracts surrounding it.

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This has been the best year for dogwood blossoms in many years. Someday, if and when the anthracnose has reduced our population to a few, widely scattered individuals as botanists predict, I’ll try and remember the spring of 2006, when clouds of dogwood blossoms dotted the hillsides, and each blossom was a revelation, distinct and irreducible.

18 Replies to “Dogwood”

  1. Lovely , Dave – both the fabulous photos and the legends and history, much that was new to me. The dogwood flower, by the way, is BC’s provincial flower. I remember on one trip to the west coast of Vancouver Island, how much we enjoyed the many “wild” dogwoods in the forest, looking stunning against the dark evergreens! I think new disease-free varieties have been introduced – and that reminds me, I was going to look for one to plant in my garden!

  2. Marja-Leena – I’m glad you liked this. Interesting to learn about a flowering dogwood species that looks so similar – except for those additional white bracts. The white blossoms against dark evergreens does sound stunning.

    Leslee – I’m working on it. Hold on.
    According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, dogwood does come from the English “dog,” but the origins of the latter word are a great mystery.
    Note that the term dogwood is attested from the 17th century; it was applied to the common European species, which (like Cornus florida) was valued for its exceptionally hard wood. In fact, I just discovered, the European Cornus was revered as something of a sacred tree, so perhaps that’s where the legends about the cross came from. The English at Jamestown apparently recognized our cornus as “dogwood” or “dogg-tree” right away, so the Old World tree lore quickly became attached to the New World tree. This is odd, since apparently the blossoms are quite diffferent.

    O.K., here we go. The same article on JSTOR from which I just gleaned the above material has a section on the origin of “dogwood.” I can’t copy and paste it in here, which is unfortunate, because it’s delightfully written. But the gist of it is that it was so called because the berries of the Old World tree were considered fit only for dogs (which were generally not pampered pets back then, of course). The skewer/dag theory is dismissed as unsupported by the OED.

  3. Needless to say, the ancient Greek and Roman reverence for the tree must’ve been lost by the time the English gave it the name we use today! The fact that men no longer fought wars with javelins made from Cornus wood might’ve had something to do with its loss of prestige – no more penis tree. (I’m not kidding – the Romans had this whole thing about male and female cornels, now recognized as different species. The male was very hard, the female soft and yielding.)

  4. Dave,
    Great photos and thanks for investigating this topic. Even the pink ornamentals seem especially nice this year. I have a small quibble about spindles being used in weaving. Spindles are for spinning, shuttles are for weaving. Both of these wooden objects I can imagine being made of dogwood but I think a spindle makes more sense. The whorl of a spindle is often made of a dense material, heavy yet compact and balanced…for a long period of spin while the fiber is drawn out. Weaving shuttles are often of a lightweight wood, easy to throw from side to side through the shed created by the warp threads. easy to catch.

  5. Leslee – Thanks for the vote of confidence. At first, I thought you were merely setting me up for a joke!

    Sylph – Thanks for the correction. I got that off a PA DCNR page on dogwood, which leads me to believe that, whichever they meant – spindles or shuttles – this is still a viable commercial use. I think we can count on our state foresters to know whether there’s any conceivable reason for cutting down a tree!

  6. I know, it sounded that way didn’t it? I went for a walk this afternoon during a break in the wet weather we’ve been having. Noticed a few dogwoods in full bloom.

  7. Your frail green heteropteran is an assassin bug (Reduviidae). It’s definitely in the genus Zelus, and is probably species exsanguinis, but this is a guess, based on what’s common in Eastern North America. They are my favorite bugs (and the topic of my dissertation). Washington DC was an assassin bug-rich city, but sadly, I haven’t seen many here on Droop. Lovely picture.

  8. Nice photos! I came upon this blog while looking for references to the crucifix legend, which I heard from a neighbor and did not know if it was a popular tale.

    It’s also interesting that the related Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) lacks a woody trunk, growing only 3-8 inches. I’ve seen it in Maine (it may be in mountains of Pennsylvania).

  9. Hi – Thanks for stopping by. Yes, bunchberry grows in higher elevation bogs in PA and down through the Appalachians. (I think I have a photo of it here somewhere, in one of my West Virginia posts.)

  10. does anybody know what to do with bunchberries? jam? dehydrated? got any resipes to share? im having trouble inding people who eat them…

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