The common flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, is one of about 65 species in the genus Cornus. All are native to the Northern Hemisphere, and many produce showy "flowers," each consisting of four bracts, or petal-like leaves, surrounding a center composed of tiny true flowers. Cornus florida features bracts of either white or shades of pink and is native to the eastern half of the United States. Breeders have developed many cultivated varieties, which are widely used as ornamental trees. Flowering dogwood has many meanings, depending on culture and context.
The genus name "Cornus" comes from the Latin word for horn, as in the hard horn of an animal. The name is indicative of the hardness of the tree's wood. "Florida," the species name, is from the Latin word for "flower," an acknowledgement of the tree's showy blossoms. According to botanist Martyn Rix, the common name, "dogwood," comes from the fact that the wood was used to make skewers, sometimes referred to as "dogs."
Language of Flowers
The language of flowers is derived from traditions in China and the Middle East that ascribe certain qualities or emotions to particular types of flowers. This "language" arrived in Europe in the 18th century, but became extremely popular in the 19th century, when Queen Victoria of England developed an interest in it. In the traditional language of flowers, dogwood blossoms signified "durability." This may have sprung from the durable quality of the dogwood tree's wood.
Some Christian legends hold that Christ was crucified on a cross made of the hard wood of the dogwood tree. Because of this, the tree never again grew tall enough to provide the long trunk needed to make a large cross. Although the legends do not mention Cornus florida, the typical structure of dogwood bracts, with two slightly shorter petals, symbolizes the cross. The pink or red petal tips of some varieties signify Christ's blood. The center of tiny true flowers is symbolic to some Christians of the crown of thorns placed on Christ's head.
Meaning and Uses
To gardeners, the words "flowering dogwood" simply mean a widely used ornamental tree. In earlier times, Native Americans valued the wood for carving, and others chewed flowering dogwood bark as an analgesic. The beauty and prolific nature of Cornus florida have made it a favorite symbol. Flowering dogwood is the state tree or state flower of North Carolina, Virginia and Missouri.
- North Carolina State University; Horticultural and Other Uses of Dogwood; David T. Thomas
- Botanix: Cornus Florida
- "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants"; Michael A. Dirr; 1998
- "The Botanical Garden"; Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix; 2002
- Photo Credit Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images
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