Flowering Dogwood

Cornus florida
     [ The pink varietal is C. florida rubra ]

Flowering dogwood also is known as American dogwood, bird cherry, boxwood, budwood, cornelian tree, dogtree, false box, Florida cornel, Florida dogwood, flowering cornel, green ozier, Indian arrowwood, nature's mistake, spindle tree, white cornel, Virginia dogwood.

Description and uses

There are 17 American species of dogwood, ranging from the tiny northern bunchberry to the Pacific dogwood, which may grow as high as 80 ft. Other species are shrubby or smaller trees. Here I will be going into detail about one of the latter, the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), which can reach a height of almost 50 feet but is usually much shorter, often appearing shrublike with multiple trunks and a wide, rounded crown. The flowering dogwood is the species best known among the dogwoods (and at least one author has suggested it may be the best-known tree of all). It grows both wild and cultivated, in which latter case it can include pink as well as the more usual white varietals.

Recognizable by its showy "flower" seen from March through June, the white or pink blossom on the flowering dogwood is in reality a group of enlarged bracts (modified leaves, just as in the poinsettia) that surround a cluster of small true flowers, which are white, greenish or yellow in color. The tree's pointed oval leaves grow in pairs, and are darker green above than below. After flowering, but often lasting into the winter, the tree bears small clusters of attractive shiny red oval fruit, about half an inch long; the fruit is eaten by birds and small mammals, but is only ornamental for humans.

The very hard wood of the flowering dogwood is dense, compact and fine-grained, and is used for the construction of commercial loom shuttles and spindles. Colonial Americans drank a tea brewed from the bark to reduce fevers. An herbal from my collection notes that an infusion (basically, a tea) or tincture made from the bark still is useful as an astringent, febrifuge (fever-reducer), stimulant and/or tonic. To create the infusion, steep 1 teaspoon of dried dogwood bark in 1 pint of water for 30 minutes and strain; take 1/2 cup every 2 or 3 hours, as needed. As a tincture, apply 20 to 40 drops in water as needed.

Dogwood is found north as far as southern Maine and southern Ontario, and south to Florida, Texas, and Missouri, but it is most abundant in the Middle Atlantic States.

"Dogwood Blossoms"
George Marion McClellan

To dreamy languors and the violet mist
Of early Spring, the deep sequestered vale
Gives first her paling-blue Miamimist,
Where blithely pours the cuckoo's annual tale
Of Summer promises and tender green,
Of a new life and beauty yet unseen.
The forest trees have yet a sighing mouth,
Where dying winds of March their branches swing,
While upward from the dreamy, sunny South,
A hand invisible leads on the Spring.

His rounds from bloom to bloom the bee begins
With flying song, and cowslip wine he sups,
Where to the warm and passing southern winds,
Azaleas gently swing their yellow cups.
Soon everywhere, with glory through and through,
The fields will spread with every brilliant hue.
But high o'er all the early floral train,
Where softness all the arching sky resumes,
The dogwood dancing to the winds' refrain,
In stainless glory spreads its snowy blooms.

(Johnson, James Weldon, ed. The Book of American Negro Poetry
(New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922; BoondocksNet Edition, 2001)

Christian legend and symbolism

Southern folklore has it that at the time of the crucifixion of Christ the dogwood grew as large and big as the oak, and that because of its strength it was chosen as the timber from which the cross was fashioned. The tree was distressed to be used for this cruel purpose, and Jesus sensed this. According to the tale, Jesus says to the tree, "Because of your regret and pity for My suffering, never again shall the dogwood tree grow large enough to be used as a cross. Henceforth it shall be slender and bent and twisted and its blossoms shall be in the form of a cross — two long and two short petals. And in the center of the outer edge of each petal there will be nail prints, brown with rust and stained with red, and in the center of the flower will be a crown of thorns, and all who see it will remember."

Contemporary versions of this legend additionally have created explanations for the appearances of the pink ("blushing" for its shame), weeping (self-explanatory), and Cherokee (the bracts are a brighter red color, suggesting the blood of Christ) varietals.

U.S. State and Canadian Provincial trees and flowers

The flowering dogwood or other dogwood is the state or provincial tree or flower for the following:

  • British Columbia (the Pacific dogwood, Cornus nuttallii is the official provincial flower; dogwood blossoms are depicted on the British Columbia coat of arms)
  • Missouri (flowering dogwood is the state tree)
  • New Jersey (flowering dogwood is the state memorial tree; New Jersey also has the red oak as its state tree)
  • North Carolina (flowering dogwood is the state flower)
  • Virginia (flowering dogwood is the state flower and state tree)

Children's riddle

How do you recognize a dogwood?
By its bark!

Sources consulted for this compilation

  • Trees: A Guide to Familiar American Trees. Herbert S. Zim, Ph.D., and Alexander C. Martin, Ph.D. Golden Press. New York. 1956.
  • Trees and Shrubs of Virginia. Oscar W. Gupton and Fred C. Swope. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville. 1981.
  • The Herb Book. John Lust. Bantam Books. New York. 1974.
  • Boondocksnet.com
  • Geobop's Plant Symbols (http://www.geobop.com/Symbols/Plants/Trees/Dogwoods/)
  • Hitting the refresh will not make you write me

    will not put you in the flesh in front of me
    will not bring your throat, roughly stubbled,
    bending again so deeply towards me
    for a kiss of words so venomous

    snakes were envious. I miss the tremble
    of how I could kneel in front of you while

    the dogwoods shook their blood-tipped petals. You
    were my temple and I was your supplicant of dust
    and the dogwoods knew this all along
    but never whispered a fragrant hint

    that your name would always be a longing thirst
    while my name was never of any consequence

    Dog"wood` (?), n. [So named from skewers (dags) being made of it. Dr. Prior. See Dag, and Dagger.] Bot.

    The Cornus, a genus of large shrubs or small trees, the wood of which is exceedingly hard, and serviceable for many purposes.

    ⇒ There are several species, one of which, Cornus mascula, called also cornelian cherry, bears a red acid berry. C. florida is the flowering dogwood, a small American tree with very showy blossoms.

    Dogwood tree. (a) The dogwood or Cornus. (b) A papilionaceous tree (Piscidia erythring) growing in Jamaica. It has narcotic properties; -- called also Jamaica dogwood.


    © Webster 1913.

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