August 14, 2011 | 10:05 pm UTC

Wood of the Month:
Flowering Dogwood a Winner with Public

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

Cornus florida of the Family Cornaceae.

Flowering dogwood, Virginia dogwood, arrow wood, cornel, cornelian, false boxwood.

Average height is 30 feet sometimes growing to 40 feet or more with diameters of 12 to 18 inches. Average weight per cubic foot is 50 pounds.

Wood has prominent medullary rays. Close, fine, hard, compact, interlocking grain. Wood can be finished to a lustrous, very smooth surface after sanding. Wood is yellowish brown with a darker-colored heart.

Diminutive is a good way to describe the flowering dogwood, a tree that tops out at 40 to 50 feet in height but averages between 20 and 30 feet, with a trunk diameter of 12 to 18 inches.

Beloved is another good descriptive word for the tree, which is the state tree for both Virginia and Missouri. While small in stature, this beautiful, showy tree rates highly with the American public. Dogwood came in third after oak and redwood in the National Arbor Day Foundation's Vote for America's National Tree competition, held in 2001.

In addition, flowering dogwoods have long been the most popular native flowering tree, according to nursery tree sales, because the tree in bloom is a beautiful sight to behold. The dogwood's pretty spring flowers are actually four large white petal-like bracts, notched at the end, while the tree's true flower is small and inconspicuous.

There are about 20 species of dogwood in the United States, nine trees and the rest flowering shrubs. World-wide, dogwood has roughly 40 species and is found in North America, Europe, Siberia, China, Japan and the Himalayas.

Useful as Well as Pretty
Those who suppose flowering dogwoods are just pretty additions to the landscape would be wrong. Lumber from the trees is used for making many things including shuttle blocks, wood engravings and gunpowder charcoal.

Author Donald Culross Peattie, in the book A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, notes that dogwood has an "extremely high resistance to sudden shock, ahead even of persimmon and inferior only to hickory" making it a long-time favorite for the "heads of golf sticks and the handles of chisels, since they can be hammered on the ends without brooming" (splitting and mushrooming out). Peattie says dogwood is also used to make mauls, mallet heads and wedges.

Peattie says that the biggest user of dogwood in the last century, however, was the textile industry. "Fully 90 percent of the dogwood cut in the last century has gone into the making of shuttles," he says. With the invention of mechanical looms, "where the shuttles are hurled at top speed, carrying the weft thread, the shuttle is in continual contact with the threads of the warp. A wood must be used which will not crack under continuous strain and will wear smoother, not rougher, with use."

Dogwood is ideal for use in shuttles, but it was not a popular choice for the job until supplies of Turkish boxwood were diminished when that wood became a popular choice for roller skates. At first, the wood was shipped all over the United States to mills and overseas, but eventually manufactured dogwood shuttles became cheaper to ship than the material to make them.

A Bark with Bite
Early settlers in the Colonies used the bark to make a medicine to treat malaria. According to Albert Constantine Jr. in the book Know Your Woods, essence of dogwood is still used in whiskey as a Southern "home remedy."

Dogwood has very aromatic bark and the best material is said to come from the inner bark of the root. The material is bitter but has astringent properties. Native Americans used the bark to make a scarlet dye that was used to color feathers.

Many Threats
The prime dogwood for lumber use is found in virgin forests, where the longest and straightest knot-free wood is usually found. Dogwood is considered rare and lumber prices reflect that, even though dogwoods are found in the United States from New York to Florida, and west to Illinois, Missouri and Texas.

Flowering dogwoods have been plagued with attack from insects like the dogwood borer and from diseases like the dogwood anthracnose (Discula destructive). The disease was first recognized in 1978 and identified in 1991. The first signs of the anthracnose are usually light brown spots on the tree's leaves, which grow into large splotches. If the disease spreads, it causes the tree to develop large cankers that will kill it in as little as two to three years after infestation. Trees in the wild are hard to treat cost-effectively, but homeowners can treat and save trees with fungicides if the disease is caught in the early stages.

Peattie writes that a former threat to dogwoods was the street vendors who cut branches in bloom to sell in spring. In Washington, D.C., the practice of selling branches was "so merciless" that the Wild Flower Preservation Society waged a battle to stop the practice. The group was successful in discouraging this particular use of the trees.


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