Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Cornus florida, or the Flowering Dogwood. One of the prettiest native trees in the forest, it’s a popular ornamental as well. Most traditional yards in the South have at least one dogwood tree. However, it’s also got one very powerful medicinal use, and many of us in the South owe our lives to it as a result.
The genus Cornus consists of about 30-60 species throughout temperate zones of the world (depending on who you ask) of small trees and shrubs. Similar species to the American flowering dogwood exist in the Middle East, southern Europe, and East Asia. Our species is native to the eastern half of the U.S., ranging from southern Canada to the mountains of northern Mexico and from the Atlantic coast west to the Mississippi. It prefers upland woods under mature hardwoods – dogwoods are an understory tree, and you’ll rarely see them growing on their own unless they were planted.
Dogwoods are small trees, usually between 15’ and 20’ tall with a crown about as broad. They are 6”-10” in trunk diameter with a cracked, reddish-brown bark. They never, or almost never, grow straight. Leaves are about 3” long and oval, with prominent veins. They are a light yellow-green for most of the year, turning a deep, brilliant red in fall. Dogwoods usually bloom around Easter in our area, covering the trees with snow-white petals. The flowers themselves are actually the tiny yellow centers, and the white “petals” are technically bracts. In fall, dogwoods fruit with bright red berries ¼” to ½” long, and birds absolutely love them.
In fact, it’s those berries that are the key to dogwood’s value as a medicinal plant. As far as I know, there’s nothing edible about the dogwood, so we’re just going to skip that portion entirely. And as a medicinal plant, its uses are limited. But within those uses, it’s a powerful and potent medicine that’s better for its purpose than just about anything else out there. During the Civil War, the Yankees put us in a tight spot by blockading our ports, preventing any shipments of supplies or medicine from coming through from the outside. In the Deep South, malaria and yellow fever were serious problems back in that day, and were taking many desperately needed men out of the action on the battlefield. Traditionally, the treatment for both of these mosquito-borne pathogens was the bark of the South American cinchona tree, from which quinine was synthesized. With it being unavailable, the Confederacy had to improvise. It was known that Indian tribes all around the South used dogwood bark and berries as a cure for these diseases, so the rebel government set up dogwood processing facilities on a grand scale. Huge parching ovens were constructed in New Orleans, and dogwood berries were brought in from all over the South to help make medicine. And it worked – the dogwood extract proved just as effective as quinine. The tonics made from the berries were distributed to troops on the front lines, and many lives were saved. Many of us who are descendants of these soldiers owe our lives to the improvised medicine made from dogwood berries. The inner bark works just as well, and here’s how you use it: Take one cup of inner bark or a half cup of thoroughly dried berries and boil them at a low, steady heat for twenty minutes. Replace the water that’s been lost, simmer for another five minutes, and you’ve got yourself a dogwood decoction.
While malaria and yellow fever are rare in the United States these days, this medicine is also highly effective as a fever reducer for more run-of-the-mill illnesses like common colds and the flu. It also works as a cough suppressant. This decoction can also be used for any kind of muscle cramps, whether from over exertion, cold, or even menstrual cramps. And oddly enough, it’s known as a treatment for tinnitus, or constant ringing in the ears. The only caveat is that the raw berries are poisonous… not enough to kill you, but they’ll definitely make you sick. Make sure to dry them as thoroughly as possible before making your decoction.
Dogwood is a desirable tree in the bushcraft world as well. Since the trees grow very slowly, their wood is extremely hard and dense, with a reddish tint and a straight, tight grain. It burns long and hot, and makes superb cooking coals. It’s great for tool handles, batons, wood wedges, or anything else that needs to take a lot of abuse. Keep in mind, however, that it’s extremely hard to carve and will dull a knife in short order. And finally, a red dye can be extracted from the roots when boiled, great for dying leather or cloth.
While dogwood is definitely a healing tree of life, it’s also been known as a tree of death. There’s an apocryphal Christian tradition that says the cross that Christ was crucified on was made from dogwood. Before the Crucifixion, the Mediterranean Dogwood was the biggest tree in the forests of Israel. From that point on, however, God made it grow narrow, short, and crooked so that a cross could never be made from it again. The tree would ooze a reddish sap when cut and bear bright red fruit to remember His blood poured out, and the flowers were made a four-petal cross shape and pure white to symbolize His purity. It’s probably not true since we’ve got fossil records of dogwoods predating that time, and the story itself didn’t crop up until the High Middle Ages. But it’s still a nice story, and a great reminder to me of my faith every time I see a dogwood.
Oh, and about that name… why dogwood? The best answer I’ve been able to find is that in medieval Europe, that same decoction of dogwood berries and bark was used to treat mange in dogs. So now you’ll have a good comeback to people who ask why it’s named that after telling the perennial lame joke…. “How do you tell a dogwood tree? By its bark! Ahahahaha!”
What about you? Have you ever made a dogwood decoction? Do you have one planted in your yard? Tell us in the comments!