Nature Bulletin No. 490 April 20, 1957
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
According to Christian legends the Flowering Dogwood was used to
make Jesus' cross because, at that time, it grew as large and sturdy as an
oak. During the crucifixion, sensing the dogwood's sadness at being put
to such a cruel use, He promised that henceforth, it shall be slender,
bent and twisted; never again to be used for a cross.
Easter and spring both stand for the coming of new life. Our floral
parade begins early with the bizarre fleshy bloom of the skunk cabbage
and reaches a peak in early May. However, the flowering dogwood is
lacking. It is native throughout most of the eastern half of the United
States, but Chicago people must take week-end trips to downstate
Illinois or Indiana to see it in bloom. There, on slopes and in
woodlands, beneath the still leafless taller trees, its blossoms will flush
the landscape like an untimely May snowstorm. A single one of its
showy blooms is a dense head of tiny greenish flowers set in a white
flower-like cup. What appear to be four broad petals with puckered
notches at their tips are not true petals at all but the greatly expanded
scales of the winter flower buds. In some of the eastern and southern
states these may be pink or rose-colored.
This dogwood has up-tilted twigs tipped with two types of buds -- all
delicately tinged with lavender, olive, purple and red. The flower buds
are plump and globular while the leaf buds are slim. The oval leaves,
rich green above and pale beneath, turn to glowing scarlet and orange in
autumn. The clusters of fruits, like miniature red plums, ripen in early
fall and furnish food for winter birds. The brown bark, divided into
squarish blocks, looks like alligator hide. The Indians made a red dye
from the smaller roots. The whole year around, the flowering dogwood
offers a wealth of color.
This little tree seldom reaches a trunk diameter of six inches but the
wood is 90 hard, close-grained, strong and heavy that it has a number of
special uses. Because it takes a high polish and will not fray the thread,
it is widely used in cotton mills for shuttles, bobbing and spools. Also
for the heads of golf clubs, jewelers' blocks and the wooden cogwheels
in grandfather clocks.
In the Chicago region there are other species of dogwoods, almost all
shrubby, that usually go unrecognized because at first glance they look
nothing like the better known flowering dogwood. Like it, however, the
veins of the leaf curve and follow the edge toward the tip. The
commonest of these is the Gray Dogwood which stands erect, is very
leafy, and often forms thickets higher than a man's head. It bears flat
clusters of small white flowers in June which are followed by berry-like
fruits that turn white and juicy in the fall. The Red-Osier Dogwood
thrives on moist soils and shores throughout Cook County. Its stems
gleam like red-hot pokers but a cultivated variety, the Yellow
Dogwood, has stalks the color of butter. The dried bark of the rather
rare Silky Dogwood or Kinnikinnik was smoked by the Indians.
Mangy dogs were washed with a brew of its bark, hence Dogwood.
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Update: June 2012