Plant Guide > Trees > Tupelos and Dogwoods > Flowering Dogwood Tree

Flowering Dogwood Tree

Flowering Dogwood TreeFlowering Dogwood (Cornus florida, Linn.)-A small, flat-topped, bushy tree, 15 to 40 feet high. Bark dark grey or brown, broken into squarish plates; branches grey; twigs velvety, purplish green. Wood heavy, strong, hard, tough; brown, fine grained.

Buds conical; flower buds vertically flattened. Leaves opposite, simple, 3 to 5 inches long, oval, with midrib and parallel side ribs indented above; whitish. Flowers, March to May, before the leaves, in close clusters at ends of branches; greenish, small, tubular; 4 white or pink involucral bracts, notched at tip, surround the flower cluster.

Fruit, October, ovoid, scarlet drupes, 1/2 inch long, few in a cluster; seeds 2. Preferred habitat, woodlands and rocky hillsides. Distribution, Massachusetts to Florida; west to Michigan, Missouri and Texas. Uses: Hardy and handsome ornamental trees. Wood used for bearings in machinery, hubs, tool handles; also for wood engravings and wood carving. Bark yields a drug like quinine; also a red dye.

The striking thing about the flowering dogwood in winter is the alligator-skin appearance of its grey, checkered bark. This identifies it in any stretch of woodland without further aid to the observer. One notices, too, the greyness and the platformed stratification of its bushy top, from whose larger branches the twigs rise with curious bendings so as to hold their clustering buds into the light.

The tree has a picturesque waywardness of habit in the woods: it crouches in the shadows of tall trees, and leans out to reach the sunshine that sifts through the forest cover. The twigs are thickly set with buds, formed in midsummer, for the flowering dogwood is a thrifty, far-sighted tree. The slim leaf buds are inconspicuous among the squat, box-like buds that contain the flowers.

I need not tell anyone how beautiful a dogwood tree is when the thick cloud of white or pink-flushed blossoms covers its bare branches to their utmost twig. It is a sight to remember to the end of one's days. Perhaps it may seem pedantic, and even unkind, to say here that the beauty of the tree is not in its flowers, but in the four large petal-like scales, or bracts, that surround the greenish bunch of small, tubular, true flowers. In winter these four bracts enfold the flowers. They are the outer envelope of the little flattened and pointed buds. In spring these bud scales do not fall, but grow at an amazing rate. Only the very tips of them are too dry to grow. They form the peculiar notch at the apex, and give the bract an artistic, if rather irregular, twist.

These bracts are merely leaves changed for the special purpose of notifying the little mining bee, Andrena, and other insects of like appetites, that there is nectar in the flower tubes they guard. Leafy in texture, though white and delicately tinted, these bracts develop before the flowers, and last beyond their fading; so we enjoy the dogwood bloom for weeks in spring instead of days, merely. This is the fact that counts, after all, and the added one that we may go out again and again and bring home sprays of the flowers, and yet leave the tree in better state than it was before, if only we cut judiciously, where the top is thickest. Dogwood trees suffer from lack of pruning; their flowers are stunted by crowding.

The grace and beauty of the leaves, with their channelled, curving, parallel veins, must strike one in summertime. Before they change colour the clustered fruits, standing where the flowers stood, burn bright against the leafy background. These shining, waxy berries are never lost to view, even when the foliage takes on shades of crimson and scarlet. They deepen and intensify these royal colours until the hungry birds have taken the last one.

The leaves have fallen, and left behind a bare grey tree, set with multitudes of buds, pledge of next year's flowers and leaves and fruit. The artist will tell you, if you press him (for he doesn't force his notions upon his friends), that the dogwood wears its finest colours in the winter time! Go out into the woods in late February or early March, just when willows and aspens show green-just a hint of it!-through their telltale bark. All the other early trees wear that "rapt, expectant look" that precedes the bold casting off of bud scales. The silky twigs and velvety buds of the dogwood, alive and thrilling with the stir of the sap, show marvellous tones of olive and grey and lavender, with deeper purple shadows and warm hints of red. These are the colours that Japanese artists revel in.

Most people miss all of the loveliness of graceful line and delicate colour harmony revealed by leafless trees. I am happy to say it is a curable form of blindness. By taking thought, one can learn to see the beauty of balance and symmetry that give strength and grace to the frame of a tree, and beauty of form to the dead teazel and mullein stalks under it. One can learn to see the purple with the dun in the autumn grain fields, and the blue in the hemlock shadows on the snow. We may not all be painters, but we may enter into some of the joys the artist finds in the common things about us. Next spring will be a good time to watch the grey bud scales expand, turn green, then pink and white. From April on we may see the steps by which the miracle progresses.

Flowering dogwoods do not grow wild in any country but ours. 'They are being exterminated in many places. They are cut for the paltry bit of lumber yielded by their spindling trunks. It ought to be a capital crime to cut a single one. They are destroyed for less cause. Here is an example. A hermit lived alone in a strip of woods along a little Michigan lake. He loved trees and plants, and kept this area a veritable Nature's garden, and willed it to the nearby city on his death.

The park commissioners, when they had spread their thanks upon the records, took immediate steps "to put the grounds in shape." Two strong labourers were sent in to clear it up. They cut out all the dogwoods-"because they didn't trim up straight!" Lower limbs, small trees and underbrush were all sacrificed to make straight the paths of picnic parties; and to get a nice sod started, and have a park! The gentle donor of this tract would have broken his heart over the look of it when these improvements (?) were completed. Though he "leaned out from the gold bar of heaven," I think he must have hurled imprecations down upon the stupidity which undid all he had so lovingly and intelligently done, but chiefly upon the slothful and incompetent commissioners who trusted such work to such hands. Only the people themselves, intelligent and vigilant, can defend themselves from such maltreatment, and save from destruction natural beauty which belongs to all.