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.
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.
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.
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.