Cornus florida, the flowering dogwood native to eastern North America, is Virginia’s official state floral emblem and state tree. In spring, dogwoods flower in clusters surrounded by large bracts, which unfold in either white or pink. Tight-clustered fruit, oval red berries, ripen in October when the leaves color red, yellow or orange. (Click here and here for previous posts about fall foliage and dogwoods.)
The name “dogwood” seems to have little to do with dogs. One explanation is that the fruit or berries were called houndberries, some varieties used medicinally, and the bark of the tree used to create a solution for washing dogs. A more likely theory is that “dogwood” stems from the word dagwood, that is, the hard dense wood used for making daggers, loom shuttles, arrows, tool handles, skewers, canes, dulcimers, golf clubs (woods), even roller skates and toothbrushes. Pioneers would strip the bark off twigs, bite and brush. Earlier, in The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer called the dogwood a whippletree, the part of a horse-drawn cart that connects cart to horse.
Then there’s the legend connected to the dogwood tree. In Biblical times, dogwoods grew large and strong around the area of Jerusalem. The hard, dense wood was supposedly used to make the cross. Since that time, dogwood trees never grew either large or straight enough for crucifixion crosses. But the dogwood flowers, which bloom at Easter time, have four petals shaped like a cross, a center like the crown of thorns and red fruit like the blood of Christ.
As the dogwood blooms, I ponder the uses we make of God’s creation and the choice N.T. Wright puts forth in Surprised by Hope: “are you going to worship the creator God and discover thereby what it means to become fully and gloriously human, reflecting his powerful, healing, transformative love into the world? Or are you going to worship the world as it is, boosting your corruptible humanness by gaining power or pleasure from forces within the world but merely contributing thereby to your own dehumanization and the further corruption of the world itself?”
I’d like to think I’m choosing the former, the beauty of the dogwood, the hard wood used for dulcimers and roller skates, the juice of the berries for healing. But all too often I get caught up in the world of power, injustice, daggers and skewers – the dogwood’s hard wood that was used to crucify Jesus and the blood-red berries for toxin. I need forgiveness – now.
When I gather with others in church, Bible Study or retreat, I know I am not alone in my struggles nor should I be. In his reflection today, Richard Rohr said, “For Jesus, such teachings as forgiveness, healing, and justice are the clear evidence of a shared life. When we do not see this happening, religion is ‘all in the head.’ Peacemaking, forgiveness, and reconciliation are not some kind of ticket to heaven later. They are the price of peoplehood–the signature of heaven–now.”
What do you think about when you see a dogwood in bloom?