Flowering dogwoods have always been an integral part of my life, and their beauty in the spring and throughout the year is unsurpassed. North Carolinians, Virginians and Missourians proudly call it their state tree. I can’t imagine a spring without them, and I watch for their beautiful white bracts with eager anticipation. It would not be out of bounds to clap when you see them. It is that good. George Washington himself, planted a circle of dogwoods with a redbud in the middle at Mount Vernon. This act was visionary and proof of his worthiness to be our first president in my opinion.
While climbing dogwoods as a boy, I learned that they were tough and hard to break. They were some in the woods I climbed and bent over till they dropped me on the ground. One, me and my friend Rudy would climb together and make it bend with our combined weight till one of us dropped off near the ground, thereby sending the other back up with the tree. I later found that dogwood was used in the textile industry due to this strength and high resistance to splitting.
Dogwood has had some obsolete uses in the past. When the southern ports were blockaded during the Civil War, medicine was hard to come by, so the southern soldiers used a lot of natural remedies. Dogwood bark was the south’s answer to malaria when they couldn’t get quinine. Before this, some native American tribes used the roots to make a scarlet dye.
Dogwood is also known to be an important wildlife food plants, feeding many birds, and mammals like rabbits, gray squirrels, chipmunks and deer. I have watched groups of birds gorging on dogwood fruit in the fall and it always seems a raucous affair. The bitter fruit is considered unpalatable for humans.
Here is a story from Ernest Thompson Seton in his classic book, Woodland Tales called “The Devil and the Dogwood.” It was Adam’s favorite tree they say, in the Garden of Eden. It grew so high and gave so much pleasure that the Devil wanted to kill it. He made up his mind that he would blight and scatter every shining leaf of its snowy bloom.
So, one dark night he climbed a Honey Locust tree near the gate, and swung by his tail over the wall, intending to tear off its lovely blossoms. But he got a shock when he found that every blossom was in the shape of a cross, which put them beyond his power to blight. He was furious at not being able to destroy its beauty, so he did the worst he could. Keeping away from the cross, he bit a piece out of the edge of every snowy flower leaf, and then jumped back to the Honey Locust tree.
The Locust was so ashamed when she found that she had helped the Devil to do such a mean bit of mischief, so she grew a bristling necklace of strong thorns to wear; they were so long and sharp that no one since, not even the Devil himself has ever been able to climb that Honey Locust tree.
But it was too late to save the Dogwood bloom. The bites were out, and they never healed up again, as you can see to this day.
On a natural history note on this story; the notch that devil bit out in the story is a remnant of the bracts former function as bud scales that protected the flower in the winter.
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