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History of Dogwood Trees

By Theresa Leschmann ; Updated September 21, 2017
Dogwood blossoms feature unique red-stained petals.

Dogwood trees were first cultivated in 1731 and today grow naturally across several continents, including North America, Europe and Asia. Their lacy blooms, called bracts, are most commonly white but also come in shades of pink. Prized for the spring blossoms, dogwood trees are among the prettiest trees used in home landscaping. Even early American settlers and American Indians valued the dogwood tree’s wood and crafted many useful tools from it. Dogwood trees have inspired two myths recounting its unusual appearance, though the source and dates of origin for theses myths are undetermined.

Early Settlers' Use of Dogwood

Dogwood tree wood contains little silica and is denser than many woods. This makes it useful for tools where preventing scratches is important. For this reason, watchmakers used the smallest slivers to clean tiny holes and crevices in their watches. The slivers also were used to clean dust from the spaces surrounding optical lenses. The settlers also used the wood to fashion everyday tools such as crochet hooks and knitting needles, T-squares and rulers, pitchforks and hammers. Even printer's blocks were made of dogwood.

American Indians' Uses for Dogwood

Using nature as a guide, American Indians used the spring blooms as a sign that it was time to plant the corn. They created cutting tools such as daggers and arrows from its wood. They also made toothbrushes from dogwood. A special tobacco mixture made from the inner bark of the dogwood was used in the sacred pipe by the Potawatomi, Cheyenne, Apache and other tribes.

Dogwood as a State Flower or Tree

Thomas Jefferson so loved dogwoods, he planted them extensively in the late 1770s at his home, Monticello, in Virginia. The tree grew in popularity in the state and as a result, the dogwood became its state flower in 1918 and its state tree in 1956. North Carolina made the dogwood its state flower in 1941. In 1955, Missouri honored the dogwood as its state tree, too.

Christian Lore Surrounding the Dogwood

According to the myth, the dogwood tree once grew straight and tall, rather than bent and twisted as it does now. The cross used to crucify Jesus was supposedly made of dogwood. Seeing that the dogwood was distraught over this misuse of its wood, Jesus promised that it would never again be used for this purpose. From that day on, the dogwood was unable to grow straight and tall. Its flower petals took the shape of the cross, each bearing a small red stain like that of a rusted nail. While an intriguing story, the dogwood has no origins in that part of the world. The story seems to have been generated in the early part of the 20th century.

Dogwood and Indian Lore

A beautiful Cherokee princess was once pursued by a brave whose advances she resisted. He became jealous and in a rage, the brave killed the princess. As she lay dying, she used the petals of the dogwood flower to stop the bleeding. It is this act that is used to explain the trace red spots on the petals of the dogwood blossoms. In honor of the myth, there is a red-blossomed variety of the dogwood tree called the Cherokee. The red-blossomed dogwood is named Cherokee in honor of the legend.