The History of the Dogwood Tree

Overview

Celebrated for their beauty, dogwoods (Cornus) have long been used as ornamental specimens. The largest Cornus specimens can rise above 60 feet in height, but many common varieties are smaller. The leaves are opposite, with veins at a sharp angle to the central rib. The dogwood "flowers" are tiny and greenish yellow. They are surrounded by four petal-like bracts ( a type of leaf) that may be white, pink or yellow. Autumn fruits are red and berrylike. The most popular dogwood trees for landscape purposes are varieties of the native dogwood, Cornus florida, or the Asian species, Cornus kousa.

Origins

The 65 species of dogwood are native to the Northern Hemisphere. The genus was named by Linnaeus in the eighteenth century but was known and used centuries earlier. Cornus mas, the Cornelian cherry, a native of central and southern Europe and western Asia, was first described in 1551. The North American native, Cornus florida, long known to the Native Americans, was first exported to England about 1740. In 1875, Cornus kousa, the Korean kousa dogwood, was introduced to England, having been discovered in Japan.

Wood: Historical Uses

Cornus florida wood is a hardwood that was historically made into shuttles for cloth weaving. It has now been displaced by plastic shuttles. In the past, the wood was also used for a variety of small items, such as spools, small pulleys and jewelers' blocks.

Dyes

Native Americans used the root bark of the common dogwood (Cornus florida) to make red dyes. In the Middle East, Cornus mascula, a species native to that area, was traditionally used to produce the red dye that colored the traditional fez or peaked hat worn by men until the early 20th century.

Medicinal Uses

In early America, a tea made from the bark of Cornus florida was used in the same way as quinine to reduce fevers. Some Native Americans used the twigs and the juices from twigs to clean and whiten their teeth. Bark decoctions were also used externally for wounds and ulcers. According to Mrs. Grieve in "A Modern Herbal" (1931), the fruits were soaked in brandy to create a remedy for stomach and intestinal complaints. A decoction of the bark of the European native, Cornus sanguinea, was traditionally used to wash dogs afflicted with mange. This may have given rise to the common name, "dogwood."

Nutritional Uses

Historically, the leaves of Cornus florida were sometimes used for animal fodder. The fruits of the Middle Eastern species, Cornus mascula, were used to flavor sherbet and to make a tart called "rob de cornis."

Keywords: dogwood history, cornus history, dogwood facts

About this Author

Elisabeth Ginsburg, a writer with twenty years' experience, earned an M.A. from Northwestern University and has done advanced study in horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden. Her work has been published in the "New York Times," "Christian Science Monitor," "Horticulture Magazine" and other national and regional publications.