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Flowering dogwood is a small flowering tree with a short trunk and a spreading crown. Before the leaves appear, four showy white ‘‘petals’’ (actually leaf-like bracts) form a cross-shaped flower that is notched at the tips with red stains. This gives rise to the folklore that Jesus was crucified on a cross of dogwood, so distressing the tree that it never again grew big enough for a cross while blood-stained flowers would always remind people of the crucifixion. Other characteristics are opposite leaves, bright red berries in early autumn, and brilliant red and orange fall foliage. The clusters of berries are a tasty treat for birds, squirrels, and other wildlife.

Long profuse in West Virginia forests, dogwoods were devastated in the 1980s and 1990s by an anthracnose fungus. The fungus causes large brownish leaf spots, then spreads to twigs and stems, and eventually kills the tree. At century’s end, the survival of the dogwood was in question.

In addition to the flowering dogwood, seven shrubby dogwood species grow in West Virginia. The dwarf cornel grows to only one foot height but also has four showy white petals and clusters of red berries, and creates an excellent landscape ground cover. Other dogwood shrubs have whitish flower clusters and are important for landscaping and wildlife.

Indians chewed dogwood twigs and used the bristle tip as a toothbrush. They also smoked the bark of shrubby dogwoods in their pipes, as part of a smoking mixture called kinnikinnick. Pioneers used the dense wood for shuttles on looms. Today, flowering dogwood is valued primarily as an ornamental and for carving durable sculptures and crafts.

Written by William N. Grafton