The dogwood tree belongs to the genus family Cornus, a French and Latin word for “horn,” which includes 30-60 hardwood trees and shrubs of both deciduous and evergreen varieties. The trees are native throughout the world and gained the name “dogwood” because dogs were unable to consume their fruits. Native Americans began planting crops, corn in particular, when the dogwoods bloomed. And they used the root of the trees to treat malaria. The operative agent is the alkaloid “cornin” found in the inner bark. Other ailments that have been treated with dogwood include insomnia, asthma, fevers, muscular problems, whooping cough and toothache.
The pink variety of flowering dogwood was first noticed and recorded by plant hunter Marc Catesby in 1731. The tree grows to a height of around 25 feet with a spread of around 25 feet at maturity, gaining a height increase of 13–24 inches per year. Flowers open in mid-spring, showing four large bracts that are incorrectly labeled as petals. Trees grown in the wild always have white bracts, but those propagated for sale can have white, pink or red bracts.
When supplies of quinine ran low during the Civil War, dogwood extract was used as a substitute. Because the wood was strong, dense, durable, resisted splitting and wore evenly it was used in the construction of wheels, weaving shuttles, hay forks and machine bearings. Today, it’s used in the manufacture of golf club heads, walking canes, tool handles, spindles and mallet heads. The different species of dogwood roots are also used to make red, black and yellow dyes. And because the leaf litter of flowering dogwoods decomposes quicker than most other trees, they’re planted to improve soil, for instance in urban forestry projects and abandoned strip mines.
Some Christians have observed that the bracts form a cross. They see in the tinged red tips the blood from Jesus’ hands and feet where they were nailed to the cross, and the red stamens in the center representing the crown of thorns. Because the tree flowers during Easter, it can serve as a reminder of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The Cherokee have a legend about “Dogwood People.” Similar to fairies, these beings lived in forests where they taught human beings how to live in harmony with the trees. They were said to be very protective, especially of babies, the elderly and the sick and they performed acts of kindness without recognition.
The dogwood tree is associated with Hecate, the ancient Greek goddess of protection and hidden knowledge who brought prosperity and blessings to families. Although she ruled over the earth, sea and sky, she preferred solitude not wanting to be the center of attention. Dogs, torches and the new moon were her sacred symbols. Her name translates to, “the distant one.” William Shakespeare mentioned her in connection with “Dagger,” a principal character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. In his day daggers were often made from the hardwood of the “dagwood” tree.” By 1614, the name officially morphed into “dogwood,” and the association of dogs, daggers and the tree with the goddess resulted in the perception of her as a goddess of witchcraft who held a dagger made of dogwood. It’s how her name became the root of the words “hex” and “hag” meaning “witch.”
Because the scent produced by the dogwood was said to relieve the body of stress, the tree has been used in aromatherapy for a long time. Across different cultures, the tree has been regarded as a symbol of stability, determination, kindness, devotion, fertility, passion, desire, illusion, and loyalty. More prominent in the literature that I researched is the notion that the dogwood signals a time of quiet change or equanimity with a caution to guard against deception and misperception, to remain vigilant and not be taken in by those who perpetrate falsehoods, misdirection and deceptions. Instead, to experience our situation from a place of patient observation.
Considering the atmosphere of adversarial politics, inept leadership and the worldwide spread of the Covid 19 virus, it was interesting to read how for some the dogwood trees signal “a time of quiet change” with a caution to “guard against deception” and so on. I’d chosen to delve into the significance of dogwoods, not because of the research, but because the pink-blooming tree pictured here has been growing in our backyard since we moved in 49 years ago. Given the many changes we’re experiencing in lifestyle, business, social interaction and worldview, all contributing to stress, it was a timely synchronicity. So many questions about the past and future. Who and what to believe or trust? Which path to take? How now to prioritize what’s important? What matters? What’s going on? Should I adapt or resist? Who’s in charge? What can I do—to help or make the best of the situation? And what can I learn from this?
Now when I look out my window or drive past a dogwood tree, I want to remember that even dramatic and disastrous changes can be met with equanimity. Calm. Life is characterized by change. Agreeable or disagreeable, living systems must change in order to adjust to changes in the environment. Cells mutate. Organisms adapt. Individuals, business enterprises and nations transform. If they don’t they die. The distinguishing characteristic of death is a lack of change. In systems-science death is referred to as a state of “equilibrium.”
Currently, we are shifting and adjusting, mutating and suffering extinctions: the human ecology is in motion, groping for adaptation.
So to live is to experience change. And in every instance we’re presented with a choice—resist or adapt. Resistance of any kind allows entropy to have its way. And like rusting metal, a time will come when the system breaks down and we’re presented with another opportunity to choose—continuing life or death? To adapt is to follow the path of nature, which supports and encourages the emergence of greater life. And that requires effort. A piece of metal showing signs of rust needs attention. If not, entropy will reduce it to dust.
Given the experience of undesirable change, how we respond to it initially makes a huge difference in the quality of life that we—and those around us—experience. Expressed or not, anger, blaming and upset is equivalent to dropping a lit match in a warehouse full of crumpled and dry newspapers. The upset of negative emotions not only ruins my string of moments and enflames those near to me, it makes more of the bad situation by glamourizing it. What we attend to we make more of. My resistance actually sustains—and can even escalate—and undesirable situation. So what to do when we’ve ignited a match in a tinderbox? Quickly, blow it out! Move from negative emotion and language to equanimity—stand still, calmly wait and envision the positive because more change is on the way. And each one of us influences it by thought, word and deed.
Ghandi demonstrated the effectiveness of equanimity and nonviolence in the face of disastrous change, and he also showed us the path of responding appropriately to undesirable situations—to offer little or no resistance to the problem. Instead, to illuminate it and then take personal responsibility to secure a more desirable outcome.
With so many viewpoints about any topic, if one person is aggressive about his viewpoint, it is likely to bring imbalance into the situation. Therefore, what is required is a certain calm, a lack of ego, a lack of delusion that one sees all around every situation and give some space for others to contribute other viewpoints which would allow the emergence of a balanced view, so that there might be balanced action. There has to be balance for there to be health — at any level.
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes
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