Dogwood flowers are of the genus Cornus – a cosmopolitan plant that is mostly made up of deciduous trees and shrubs – which consists of 30 to 50 different species, and is in the family cornaceae. The head of the dogwood appears in a small cluster which is surrounded by four large bracts, or modified leaves, and tends to be about 2 inches in diameter when in full bloom. Traditionally, the dogwood comes in a white hue; however, they may also occasionally be seen in pink, yellow and red. Many species of dogwood flowers have opposite leaves, while just a handful may have alternate leaves. All dogwoods carry fleshy stone fruit, but only a few are edible to humans – others, though, may be faintly toxic.
Dogwood flowers have found their way into a good deal of legend, and have also long been touted for their many uses. One of the better known legends – which is still of unknown origin – states that the dogwood plant was once the size of an oak tree, and was considered one of the largest trees in Jerusalem. The bark of the dogwood was used as timber for crucifixions, and from one such cross Jesus was hanged. The trees, though, felt the pain of all that were hanged from them, so Jesus took pity on the poor plant and said, “Because of your regret for my suffering, never again shall the dogwood tree grow large enough to be used as a cross.” And so the tree shrank to the petite size that it is today. Another myth tells of a Native American princess who was killed by a jealous brave whom she had scorned. As she lay bleeding, she blotted her wounds with the petals of the dogwood flower. Because of this – according to the story – many of the blossoms carry trace amounts of red on their petals. As for their variety of uses, early American settlers used slivers of the bark to clean small crevices of watches and lenses – they also used it to create tools such as hammers, knitting needles and even printer’s blocks. American Indians used the bark to fashion arrows, and the spring blossoms to predict the time to begin planting their crops.
In North America, dogwood flowers are considered an all encompassing religious symbol. These flowers are often given as gifts for holidays – especially Easter – as the four bracts can represent the four points of the cross; small indentations along the outer edge of the bracts represent the marks left by the nails; the spiky yellow and green flowers at center are related to the crown of thorns, and the fruit is indicative of the blood of Jesus. These flowers may also be given for a number of other symbols, such as sacrifice, regeneration, and enduring love.