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March is going to the dogwoodsPosted Wednesday, March 28, 2012, at 2:29 PM
Photo by Steven Foster For photo prints, go to www.stevenfoster.com/prints.html
The beautiful dogwood blooms are veils of illusion. Those creamy white "petals" -- the showy display and chief beauty of the tree -- are not flowers at all, but bracts -- four modified leaves surrounding the crowded flower head of inconspicuous pale yellowish-green flowers.
Botanists call dogwood Cornus florida. "Florida" means flowering. The genus Cornus, whose name derives from the Latin cornu, meaning horn, referring to the horn-like hardness of the wood, has about 60 species, mostly northern temperate climate small trees and shrubs.
Ozark folklore harbors a tale that the cross from which Jesus hung was made of dogwood, cursing the tree to its stunted twisting form, unfit for lumber. Despite the curse befallen on dogwood, this versatile very hard wood, which takes on a high polish, was used for making small durable objects.
Since the wood wears slowly and is very hard, dogwood was employed in making mill wheel cogs and the small parts of other wooden machinery susceptible to wear. Forks, spoons, rulers, chisel and hammer handles, mallet heads and wooden vices are just a few implements the 19th-century woodworker made from this durable material.
Weavers have long enjoyed shuttles and bobbins made from dogwood. Engravers worked it into printing blocks. Golf club heads were formerly manufactured from the wood of dogwood.
Dogwood's inner bark represented a preferred indigenous alternative to the high-priced and often adulterated Peruvian bark, Jesuit's bark, or cinchona -- chief source of the drug quinine, a preferred malaria treatment for centuries. During the Civil War years in the South, dogwood inner bark was used almost exclusively over cinchona in Confederate hospitals to treat malaria since Southern ports were blockaded and cinchona was almost impossible to import from South America.
Dogwood twigs were also used as "chewing sticks," the forerunners of modern toothbrushes.
Behind the raiment of showy flowers is a tradition of practical use borne of legend and fact. Dogwood's flowery exhibition reminds us spring is here to stay, and provides the excuse to convey that the tree's beauty is more than meets the eye.
Steven Foster is a world renowned botanical photographer. He has published many books, including 2 for National Geographic
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