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D is for Dogwood

Dogwood flowers
Robert Vidéki, Doronicum Kft.,

Dogwood or Cornel comes from a large family called Cornaceae. It ranges from low creeping shrubs to large trees. Some of the 60 species grow well in hedgerows and look similar to Privet. Many of us recognise it as the ornamental shrub with bright red, orange or yellow stems, often seen in parks and gardens. The name for this ornamental shrub is Cornus Sanguinea.

Cornus Sanguinea

Such a curious name for a widely distributed species. I decided to dig into some of my old tree books to see if I could unravel its past and the reason for its name.

The classification of Dogwood is “Cornus”. This is an ancient latin word meaning “horn”.

Dogwood is a very hard and strong wood, and it was said that the term Dogwood could have easily evolved from the Celtic word dag, dagga, or dagwood over the years. If you look up the word “dagwood’ it shows you an American piled up sandwich with a cocktail stick or skewer holding it in place! What has this got to do with Dogwood? Well, you may be familiar with the word “firedog”. This was originally a piece of stone with indentations to possibly hold skewers on to which pieces of meat were roasted. Firedogs got their name from the four-legged appearance-a pair of bracket supports upon which logs were laid for burning in a open fireplace. It is possible that the skewers on ancient firedogs were made from dogwood. The wood is so hard that the finest weaving shuttles were made from it, and later, golf club heads.

Dogwood bark was also used as a mange treatment for dogs. The bark was boiled, and the dog was washed in the resulting liquid. Any medicinal properties that the bark or the tree actually has is minimal at best, and the practice of using the Dogwood for mange, seems to have resulted in the misconception that the name Dogwood meant that it was good for dogs.

Drawing of Dogwood flower, leaf and fruit

Dogwood has had other uses over the centuries. Its white flowers are produced in June or July and produce nectar which gives off an unattractive smell and attracts flies or beetles. In September, small green berries are produced, which turn black in September. These bitter berries produce a greenish-blue dye and a non-drying oil which is used in soap in France.

You can harvest the Dogwood berries in Autumn. They need a bit of coaxing to germinate (known as stratification). First, soak the berries in water for a couple of days. If the berries float in the water, they are no good and need to be removed. Soaking should make it easier for the pulp to come away, exposing the seeds. You can then place the seeds in the fridge for 3 months to mimic a cold period thus initiating germination. After this time, the seeds can be planted out in to seed trays about ¼ inch deep.

Dogwood is an excellent choice for firewood, once it has been dried thoroughly. The tree can be coppiced, whereby it is cut down to the ground to stimulate growth. This makes it an excellent tree to grow with other species, thus increasing the diversity of trees.


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