April 2022 Tree of the Month: Flowering Dogwood (Cornus Florida)

By Martin (Mort) Schmidt for Simply Living

One of the most beautiful trees native to Ohio is the Flowering Dogwood. Its lovely flowers with
large white petals are a welcome harbinger of spring, even if the petals aren’t really petals.

But first, another tree with white flowers makes its appearance in April — Callery Pear. You’ll see thousands of them in untended lots and along freeways, with their flowers of five white petals.
Enjoy the spectacle now, because they’re highly invasive, and harmful to the environment. Also, the native Red Maple is in bloom. A recent survey showed that they’re the most common street
tree in Columbus, and they’re abundant in forests as well, especially in areas with wet soil. Red Maple flowers are small and rather inconspicuous, because they’re wind-pollinated and don’t need
to attract insects. But once you’ve noticed them, you’ll be surprised how much color they lend to an
otherwise colorless landscape.

Left – Callery Pear in bloom. Right – Red Maple in bloom. Photos by Mort Schmidt.

Flowering Dogwood (Dogwood) is easy to recognize throughout the year. Dogwood is the D in MADBuck — Maple, Ash, Dogwood, and Buckeye, which have oppositely-arranged leaves and branches. Because the ashes and buckeyes have large compound leaves, i.e., they have multiple leaflets on the same stem, they have stout twigs, something like the diameter of a pencil. Dogwood and most of the maples have smaller, simple leaves, and therefore slender twigs, more like the diameter of a pencil lead. Dogwood leaves are elliptical, and have tiny teeth, scarcely visible without magnification. But in spite of the leaves’ plain outline, they are easily recognized by veins running parallel to the outer edges.

Clockwise from upper left – Flowering Dogwood bark. Alternate vs opposite. Flowering Dogwood
leaves. Flowering Dogwood Flowers. Flowering Dogwood buds. Photos by Mort Schmidt.

Dogwoods are understory trees and are usually between 10 and 20 feet tall with a trunk of 4 to 6 inches in diameter, but can be as much as 40 feet tall with a trunk of 12 inches in diameter. The
bark is quite distinctive, and is composed of small, polygons approximately half an inch in diameter. The bark resembles that of Black Cherry, but the plates in Dogwood are smaller and lighter in color. And Cherry is a far larger tree. In winter and spring Dogwood buds are also distinctive, and look like miniature, upward-pointing garlic buds. Dogwood flowers are bright white, but the “petals” are actually bracts. Bracts are modified leaves that protect the flower or
fruit, but their placement relative to other flower parts distinguish them from petals. Each Dogwood flower actually has a number of tiny yellow flowers at its center. In the fall, the fruits consist of small green berries that turn red. Variants include cultivars with pink bracts.

Another native species, Alternate Leaf Dogwood or Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), obviously has alternate, not opposite leaves, and different flowers and fruits than Flowering Dogwood. Cornus alternifolia is one of several species of dogwood described in Lucy Braun’s classic The Woody Plants of Ohio, but only C. florida typically reaches tree size.

Dogwood lumber is smooth and unusually hard, with a Janka hardness of 2,150 lbf and a density of 0.73 g/cc, according to the Wood Database https://www.wood-database.com/dogwood/ . The
only harder woods commonly found in Ohio are Persimmon, with a hardness of 2,300 lbf, and the non-native Osage Orange or Hedge Apple, with a hardness of 2,760 lbf. Like Persimmon,
Dogwood’s hardness and high shock resistance make it suitable for golf-club heads. It’s also popular for mallets and turned objects, and was once used for loom shuttles and wooden pulleys.
However, its small size and limited availability limit its applications.

A number of websites, including Lupilon https://iupilon.com/can-you-eat-dogwood-berries/ report
that the fruits of some species of dogwood, including the Asian Kousa Dogwood, are edible to
humans, but Flowering Dogwood berries are toxic and extremely bitter.

According to RxList.com, “Historically, American dogwood was sometimes used for treating malaria instead of the drug quinine. American dogwood is still used today as medicine, but not very
often.” They also say that, “People use American dogwood for headaches, fatigue, fever, and ongoing diarrhea. It is also used to increase strength, to stimulate appetite, and as a tonic.”

Brandeis University’s website lists the following medicinal applications for Dogwood:
● “Bark — Root-bark tea or tincture widely used for malaria and diarrhea throughout South
during the Civil War. Also used as a poultice for external sores and ulcers.
● Fruits — Berries soaked in brandy for heart burn and upset stomach.
● Twigs — Twigs chewed for cleaning teeth.”

The website also provides the following caution for natural medicines: “This site is for identification and information purposes only. It is not meant to be used for diagnosis of medical conditions or for
prescription of treatments. The information on preparation of remedies is rudimentary and should
not be attempted without further consultation. Please see a doctor if you are in any doubt.”

In folklore, Dogwood is one of several trees associated with the crucifiction of Jesus Christ. An often-told story is that the Dogwood was a large tree until it was used to construct Chris’s crucifix,
and it was subsequently shrunken down as punishment. But the tree felt so bad about its involvement, that God pitied it and rewarded Dogwood with lovely flowers during the Easter season. The four “petals” represent the cross, and the small red-brown notches at the end of each bract are the holes where Christ was nailed. (Another story holds that Christ was crucified on a tree of Aspen, and now, the leaves tremble with fear in the presence of God. In any case, Dogwood doesn’t occur naturally in the Middle East).

According to the Dogwood Garden Club website, the Native Americans told the following story about the Dogwood: “The Cherokee believed that a tiny people lived amidst the Dogwoods and that
this divine little race was sent to teach people to live in harmony with the woods. The ‘Dogwood People,’ as they were called, were very kind; they protected babies and took care of the old and infirm. It is said that when the Cherokee learned to speak English – they began to call the Dogwood people ‘brownies.’” https://dogwoodgardenclub.org/legends-of-the-dogwood/

If you plant Dogwood, I encourage you to plant the native variety in an area with shade. And resist the urge to joke about the Dogwood’s bark.

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