By Audrey Stallsmith
Spring’s real harbingers are too subtle for the eye and ear. Some must have the flowering crocus, the wood-starring dogwood, the voice of bluebird. . .
O'Henry--"Springtime A La Carte"
Native Americans and canny colonists always waited until the dogwoods bloomed to plant their corn. Otherwise their burgeoning crop might by hit by "dogwood winter"--a brief spell of chilly weather which frequently arrives just before that tree's blossoms.
Not that the four white "petals" we associate with cornus florida can properly be called flowers. They are, rather, bracts and the true flowers are that cluster of yellow in the middle.
Cornus derives from the Latin cornu ("horn") and dogwood itself from the Gaelic daga ('skewer"), both names referencing the hardness of the tree's wood. That toughness, combined with the tree's short stature, made it popular for smaller items which had to be dependable--such as loom shuttles, arrows, tool handles, and etc. So it came to stand for "durability" in the Language of Flowers.
Tradition holds that the tree's hardness once made it appropriate for crosses as well. And that, after Christ's crucifixion, dogwood was doomed to a stunted and crooked existence. Its four-bract flowers assume a cross shape, and the blotches on those "petals" supposedly resemble blood.
Bark from the roots must bleed too, as it was employed to make a scarlet pigment, while bark from the branches--its properties similar to quinine--treated fevers. When used as a brush, pith from the twigs is said to whiten the teeth. And dogwood leaves feed larvae of the spring azure butterfly
Although florida is the most well-known cornus here, there are at least 50 or so species. The one known as whipple tree may have been cornus sanguinea, a native British variety.
In recent years, cornus florida has suffered dreadfully from dogwood blight, which infects the leaves with small purplish spots. It strikes most heavily among forest trees in close, damp conditions. So, if you are one of those who must have "the wood-starring dogwood," you might want to choose a resistant type like Appalachian Spring, and keep it away from those woods! (Give it, rather, plenty of air and sunshine.)
You might also want to follow the example of those early Americans, and put off setting out your annual plants until after the dogwoods bloom. Just to be on the safe side!
Cornus florida image is courtesy of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine.