Dogwoods are a group of deciduous tree of the genus Cornus most famous for its flowering ability. But they are much more than a pretty sight. They have spawned several legends, played important parts in history and are essential to many species of wildlife.
More than 50 species of dogwood exist in the northern hemisphere, of which 17 are native to the United States. Most dogwoods fall into one of two categories. The first category has red or yellowish fruit and, except for the bunchberry, are all trees. The second category has blue-black or whitish fruit and are mostly shrubs that produce tiny clusters of white flowers.
Dogwoods are not simply attractive, they are also good providers. Dogwood berries serve as food for a variety of birds and mammals during the fall and through the winter. According to Robert Whitmore, professor of wildlife ecology at West Virginia University, in an article on the National Wildlife Federation website, more than 40 species of birds have been documented eating dogwood berries, as have deer, squirrels and rabbits.
Although dogwoods are know for their blooms, some states consider them worthy enough to make it their state flower. It is the state tree of Missouri, the state flower of North Carolina and both the state tree and the state flower of Virginia. Of course, this is common knowledge for those of you who have seen the movie "The American President."
All species of dogwood produce simple, fleshy fruit known as drupe. Drupe have a hard inner layer, referred to as the endocarp or stone, that surrounds the seed. However, the ovary wall, or pericarp, is soft or fleshy once it has matured. Examples of other drupe include cherries, peaches, olives, peaches and almonds. According the Poison Control Center of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, dogwood fruit is not toxic if eaten.
Dogwood anthracnose is a fungus, Discula destructiva, that was introduced into the United States in the 1970s. It shows up as spots with a tan center and a reddish-purple margin that vary in size. Once infected, the tree usually dies within three years. Not all dogwood species are susceptible. While both flowering (Cornus florida) and Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) are, the Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) is not.
According to legend, dogwood was used to build the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. Afterward, Jesus promised the tree that it would from then on stay smaller so it would never again be used for that purpose. According to the legend, the dogwood still bears some signs of its former use: Its bracts form the shape of a cross and bear the nail marks and the leaves turn red in the fall to symbolize the blood shed by Christ. A Cherokee legend claims that the flowers of the red dogwood are stained because a young maiden picked up a dogwood flower to soak up her blood after she was slain be a jealous suitor.
The heavy, fine-grained wood of the dogwood has been used for a variety of things through the years. Native Americans used the wood to make arrows, daggers and toothbrushes. The textile industry used its wood to make shuttles for weaving machines. In more recent times, the wood has been used to make golf clubs, wedges to split logs and jeweler's benches. Dogwood was also used in place of quinine during the Civil War to treat malaria and fevers.