Flowering Dogwood

Cornus florida

by John Brouwer

American novels set in the south, often present dogwoods and redbuds as the quinessential southern flowering trees. Flowering dogwood is the state tree of North Carolina and Virginia. Georgia has named dogwood as its state flower and Atlanta has held an annual dogwood festival for 70 years. We live on the northern edge of the carolinian forest – the same forest shared by the southern states.

Both flowering dogwood and redbud are also native in southern Ontario, although they are not part of Ontario culture, probably because the species are scattered. The flowering dogwood is in decline due to fungal diseases.

Flowering dogwood appears in early May with white flowers covering its branches for about two weeks. The shrub is an understorey tree growing 12-15 feet in the semi-shade of forest edges. The early flowers contrast with the pale emerging greens of background trees. Dogwood can live for 80 years.

Fall foliage is scarlet to reddish purple. Its bright red fruit drupes last into winter if they are not devoured by birds. Many small mammals use the dogwood for grazing and lots of birds use dogwoods for nesting.

Historically there was a dogwood grove in Alabama over six miles in diameter growing before the conquest. Evidently this grove was composed almost exclusively of interlocking dogwood branches at 12 feet which completely shaded the forest floor and moderated ground level temperatures. It impressed everyone who experienced it. None of this exists now.

Dogwood bark was used in medieval times to bathe mangy dogs. Native Americans used dogwood to make scarlet dyes and tinctures. Colonists made tea from the bark to reduce fevers and soothe colds.

The close-grained wood of the flowering dogwood was used to make the shuttles critical to weaving in the textile industry. Today it continues to be used for specialty wood products.

There is a tradition that Jesus' crucifixion cross was made of dogwood. This is unlikely. The flowering dogwood does not grow in the mideast. It is more likely that this tradition developed because the four petals of the dogwood flower are positioned in the shape of a cross.

Flowering dogwood is listed as an endangered species by both the Ontario and federal governments. Natural occurrences of the shrubs are protected.

Although I have have had flowering dogwood seed, I have not been able to germinate it. The literature suggests that the seed has to be kept cold for at least four months before germination can be induced. Its likely that our home freezer will have some seed packages this fall prior to another attempt next spring.