Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, every gardening magazine has a section on ‘winter colour’ in September (along with instructions on bulb planting), and one of the plants that is always mentioned is the dogwood (Cornus sanguinea). This is a shrub which is native to the UK and most of Europe and western Asia, and it is largely grown for the colour of its stems in winter – the species name sanguinea meaning ‘bloody’ rather gives the game away. It is the youngest growth which has the brightest colour, and in many municipal parks and gardens the plant is cut right down to a few inches every year. There are many cultivated varieties of dogwood, with stem colour varying from crimson red to sunset orange.
However, dogwood is more than its stems. Although the white flowers are not particularly showy, the berries (sometimes called dogberries) are irresistible to birds, one reason that I don’t butcher my shrub every year. In fact, some organic gardens grow dogwood as a way of keeping the thrushes from the soft fruit, as it’s said that they prefer dogberries to any other fruit. I shall have to see if my bush proves to be interesting to our avian friends when it gets a bit bigger.
According to Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’ the name ‘dogwood’ is not disparaging (unlike, say ‘Dog’s Mercury’), but comes from the name ‘dagwood’, a ‘dag’ being a wooden skewer. This is borne out by some of the other common names, such as ‘prickwood’. When the prehistoric man Otzi was discovered on the borders of Austria and Italy, he was carrying arrow shafts made of dogwood and viburnum, and an axe with a handle made of yew. He was estimated to have been buried in about 3400 BCE, and was approximately 45 years old when he met his violent death. The story of the discovery, and of what has been ascertained about Otzi’s way of life, is a fascinating one. Furthermore, the fact that the body is in a museum in Italy and not in Austria is still a source of some disgruntlement in Austria to this day.
Dogwood is mentioned in classical literature: in the Aeneid, Aeneas finds a haunted copse of dogwood and myrtle, and when he breaks off branches to make an altar, the dogwood bleeds black blood.
There is also a legend that Christ was crucified on a cross made of dogwood, and that the flowers became cruciform as a result.
Finally, it’s said in the UK that when the dogwood flowers, there will be no more frosts.Dogwood bark and berries both contain natural tannins, which make them both unpalatable, and useful as emetics. The plant has also been used as a treatment for rabies (hydrophobia), which may have been due to a misunderstanding of the derivation of its name. A solution made from the bark has been used by veterinarians to treat mangy dogs.
The fruit of dogwood was also used to produce a dye called Vesica green, until it was replaced by more exciting substitutes such as, er, arsenic. For a rather wonderful account of how THAT particular decision went down, have a look at the Racked website here.
Dogwood is one of the many foodplants of the larvae of the green hairstreak butterfly. As this is a) the UK’s only green butterfly, and b) as its Latin name means ‘beautiful eyebrow’ I thought that we should have a photo. What a delightful creature!
And, to return to the subject of ‘winter fire’, here is a wonderful poem by American poet Hyam Plutzik, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, who died at the age of 50 in 1962. This really touched a chord in me, and I hope it does the same for you.
Because the Red Osier Dogwood
Because the red osier dogwood
Is the winter lightning,
The retention of the prime fire
In the naked and forlorn season
When snow is winner
(For he flames quietly above the shivering mouse
In the moldy tunnel,
The eggs of the grasshopper awaiting metamorphosis
Into the lands of hay and the times of the daisy,
The snake contorted in the gravel,
His brain suspended in thought
Over an abyss that summer will fill with murmuring
And frogs make laughable: the cricket-haunted time)—
I, seeing in the still red branches
The stubborn, unflinching fire of that time,
Will not believe the horror at the door, the snow-white worm
Gnawing at the edges of the mind,
The hissing tree when the sleet falls.
For because the red osier dogwood
Is the winter sentinel,
I am certain of the return of the moth
(Who was not destroyed when an August flame licked him),
And the cabbage butterfly, and all the families
Whom the sun fathers, in the cauldron of his mercy.
Photo One (Dogwood berries ) by Sten Porse – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92313
Photo Two (Otzi reconstruction) by By Thilo Parg – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35621968
Photo Four (Green Hairstreak) by By Charlesjsharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39829980