Western Dogwood

Pacific Dogwood; or,
Western Flowering Dogwood

"High o'er all the early floral train,
Where softness all the arching sky resumes,
The dogwood dancing to the winds' refrain,
In stainless glory spreads its snowy blooms."

-George Marion McClellan


I can stand on the sidewalk path in front of the house, look in a single direction, & without turning my head see three twenty to thirty foot Pacific Dogwoods, Cornus nuttalli, probably not planted by human hands since they're very common native trees in our county.

If I saunter around the neighborhood in late April when these trees are at their flowering peak & thus easiest to spot, there are easily a dozen within a couple of blocks, of which one is shown in the photo from the alley straight across the road from us.

Along a busy road with the woods constantly interupted by homes & businesses, I counted fifteen western dogwoods in half a mile, counting only specimens I could see leaning out into the street. Every back road of Kitsap County has plenty of these dogwoods, which are simply among the most beautiful of our native trees.

And yet curiously, for the last century, when gardeners planted dogwoods in their Northwest gardens, they tended to plant C. florida rubra, the Eastern pink-flowering dogwood, which has long been a major production tree among commercial growers.

When the fungal disease anthracnose arrived in North America in the 1970s, the western & eastern dogwoods began dying off in vast numbers. On the east coast entire populations of eastern dogwoods died out of several forests, while in forests of British Columbia, anthracnose spread through wilderness areas targetting western dogwoods.

Northwest forests were afflicted slightly earlier than the eastern, but by a strain of anthracnose distinct from that in the east & believed to have been independently introduced into North America. The eastern dogwood spontaneously produced a highly resistant tree that became the source of a white-flowering cultivar called 'Appalachian Spring' that seems pretty certain to have saved C. florida from irreversible doom. No one is as yet producing a western dogwood equivalent of 'Appalachian Spring.'

There has been some fear that C. nuttallii could eventually be extinct without herculean efforts to save it. Thus micropropogation of several strains from several location is being undertaken by a C. nuttallii gene preservation program through the University of British Columbia.

More research into the problem has been done in the east not because C. florida is more susceptible, but because it had become a major multi-million dollar component of the nursery industry, whereas C. nuttalli hasn't had the same degree of economic significance.

However, on the plus side, anthracnose decimation of western dogwoods seems to have peaked in the late 1980s & early 1990s, & surviving trees today are a little less susceptible to the disease. In some forests only 15 to 20% of the western dogwoods were killed. In other areas nearly all were killed, so degree of destruction is not uniform.

Usually the remaining trees in a wild dogwood population will be infected eventually, but the hope is that enough will survive & reproduce in the wild to perpetuate their own generations, until eventually only resistant trees remain, at which point they may be able to increase in number rather than continue their population decline.

Wild trees in the more sun-exposed sites last longest (despite that the tree would prefer to be sub-story) because the disease spreads more slowly in dry heat. Gardened cultivars can sometimes have their looks preserved & their lives greatly extended if the fungus is spotted soon enough, if infected branches are removed & properly disposed of, if the tree is not watered in the spring time when the fungus is most active, but not permitted to experience drought in the summer, & by watering exclusively in the morning as the fungus can be assisted in its spread by evening watering even in summer. Fungicides are not effective on their own, but are nevertheless sometimes used as a confinement measure & to stop spread of spoors at time of spring budding.

Lengthier discussion of dogwood anthracnose is on the C. florida page. Fortunately, here in Kitsap County, anthracnose has avoided becoming a problem, perhaps because we are a Penninsula cut off from the possibility of the disease migrating along rivers. So for the rest of this page I want to discuss dogwoods in a context distincly more fun:


The idea of the dogwood flower as symbol of the crucifixion is old in North America, because the four petals can be imagined as a cross. But one specific story was a modern invention, which runs something like this, slightly condensed from the original:
"The dogwood once grew as tall & mighty as the oak, so it was chosen as the tree on which Jesus was crucified. The deeply unhappy dogwood begged the Lord's forgiveness. Jesus took pity on & decided that forever after, the dogwood would be slender & twisted so that its wood could never again be used for a cross. He also reshaped the dogwood's blossoms into the form of a cross. In the center of each bloom is a crown of thorns, & on each of its petals are nail-prints stained with red."
That particular legend was distributed in the 1950s & 1960s through many churches in the form of a post card, & has within the last few years been reprinted with new designs for further church use. Similar 1950s church postcards include "Legend of the Sand Dollar," "Legend of the Starfish," "Legend of the Spanish Moss" & "Legend of the Crucifix Fish (Sail Cat)" -- concocted miniature tales by the equivalent of anonymous Hallmark Card authors.

There is one version of the postcard that is made out of wood (perhaps out of dogwood; it means to imply it is at any rate). Other variants were printed for tourist shops & would be titled "Legend of the Dogwood of Florida" or "Legend of the Dogwood of North Carolina" depending on where the cards were to be sold.

Postcard collectors can get these old christian church cards through eBay auctions pretty easily, as even the old ones are very common (for $1 to $5), & modern reprints can cost as little as 35 cents. The text was even reworked into a Hallmark style rhyme, very bad doggeral even worse than the original prose vignette.

These cards have had their texts copied into e-mails & onto the web by easily impressed religious folks. Once this old vignette reached the web, it began to be copied & recopied from website to website, with fewer & fewer people knowing where it really came from, until it began to pass as authentic Biblical folklore for people who thought the dogwood maybe really grew in Israel, har har.

Authentic folklore ends up with many variants rather than such simple uniformity as seen in the postcard-originated minor literary exercise. Christian symbology of the Passionflower for instance has many variants & ammendments stacked upon it during the four hundred years it has circulated first among aboriginal converts in Central America. And actual dogwood legendry is quite rich, too, a mix of Native American lore fertilized with European flower lore.

Among southern Native Americans, the flowering dogwood was a symbol of protection, possibly because the hard wood made good shields & clubs, & because dogwood was used medicinally.

The Cherokee believed a miniature people lived amidst dogwoods who were a divine race sent to teach the people to live in harmony with the forests. The dogwood people were extremely kind & take care of the old & infirm, & protect babies. When the Cherokee came to speak English, they began to call the Dogwood People "brownies."

One Native American tale told of a chief who had four beautiful daughters. He said he would marry each daughter to suitors who brought him the greatest number of ponies or the most valuable gifts. The Great Spirit disapproved of the plan of selling the girls, & so turned the chief into a small tree with twisted branches. His daughters are the four showy bracts of the dogwood flowers.

"Dogwood Winter" was a folk designation for an unseasonably cold May, when the dogwoods were aflower, akin to the "Dog Days" as the hottest days of summer, when the dog-star Sirius is closest to the sun. In the folkways of weather forecasting it was assumed that there would be no more days of frost when the dogwoods bloomed, but that winter would be unusually cold if the fruits of the dogwood were numerous.

Among white immigrants Dogwood symbolized sacrifice because they saw in the four-bracted flowers the form of the cross. The image of this flower became a common tombstone ornament, a symbol not only of death but of hope that death was not eternal.

In frontier times in the American west, a young girl newly of marriagable age would wear a white dogwood flower to go out walking, with the expectation that the first man she met wearing a white hat would have the same first name as the man she would one day marry.

The dogwood was not actually named for a dog. The name is believed to be a corruption an old Celtic word, dag or dagga, sharing the same root as "dagger." A dagge was any pointed tool, & daggawood was so hard that it could be used to fashion innumerous useful objects. Victorian watchmakers used slivers of dogwood to clean delicate watch gears & parts, as the wood is void of silica & will not scratch fine surfaces. New World printers carved blocks of dogwood to print engraved pictures.

The genus name Cornus alludes to this feature of being as hard as horn, & from this sturdy wood everything from cogwheels & pitchforks to toothpicks & knitting needles & knives were nade. Because dogwood could be used for such sharp instruments, it was also known as Prick Timber, coopting a name also used for the spindle tree (Euonymus europaeus).

But the name Dog-Tree entered English vocabulary by 1548, & had been further transformed to Dogwood by 1614. Once the name dogwood was affixed to the tree, it soon acquired a secondary name as the Hound's Tree, while the fruits came to be known as Dogberries or Houndberries (the latter a name also for the berries of black nightshade & alluding to Hecate's hounds).

The meaning of the old name Gater Tree has been lost to time. It is not likely to be in any way related to alligators, nor do I think it is related to gate manufacture though the wood of a dogwood tree would be excellent for that purpose. It is my suspicion that it as a Middle English word meaning Goatherder (the same as such English & Scottish family names as Gater or Gaither, once a common name among settlers in the Carolinas & Virginia), because several types of dogwood are favorite browsing shrubs & trees for both wild & domestic goats, as well as for deer.

Dogwoods having early been introduced into England for their ornamental beauty, in the early 1800s people began to make a dog-bathing concoction from the leaves, with the expectation that it would get rid of fleas. Alternatively, bark of the dogwood could be used to create a frothy water that would treat dogs with mange. So far as I know dogwood has no actual insecticidal or health effects for dogs, & beliefs to the contrary grew out of the common name rather than its actual properties.


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