The genus Cornus is a group of about 30-60 species of woody plants in the family Cornaceae, commonly known as dogwoods.
Most dogwoods are deciduous trees or shrubs, but a few species are nearly herbaceous perennial subshrubs, and a few of the woody species are evergreen. The various species of dogwood are native throughout much of Europe and North America, with China and Japan and the southeastern United States particularly rich in native species.
Dogwoods have simple, untoothed leaves with the veins curving distinctively as they approach the leaf margins. Most dogwood species have opposite leaves, while a few, such as Cornus alternifolia and C. controversa, have their leaves alternate. Dogwood flowers have four parts. In many species, the flowers are borne separately in open (but often dense) clusters, while in various other species (such as the flowering dogwood), the flowers themselves are tightly clustered, lacking showy petals, but surrounded by four to six large, typically white petal-like bracts.
The fruits of all dogwood species are drupes with one or two seeds, often brightly colourful. The drupes of several species in the subgenera Cornus and Benthamidia are edible, though without much flavour. However, those of species in subgenus Swida are mildly toxic to people, though readily eaten by birds and by the larvae of some species of butterflies and moths
The name “dog-tree” entered the English vocabulary by 1548, and had been further transformed to “dogwood” by 1614. Once the name dogwood was affixed to this kind of tree, it soon acquired a secondary name as the Hound’s Tree, while the fruits came to be known as dogberries or houndberries (the latter a name also for the berries of black nightshade, alluding to Hecate’s hounds). Another theory advances the view that “dogwood” was derived from the Old English dagwood, from the use of the slender stems of its very hard wood for making “dags” (daggers, skewers, and arrows). Another, earlier name of the dogwood in English is the whipple-tree. Geoffrey Chaucer uses “whippletree” in The Canterbury Tales (“The Knight’s Tale”, verse 2065) to refer to the dogwood. A whippletree is an element of the traction of a horse-drawn cart, linking the drawpole of the cart to the harnesses of the horses in file; these items still bear the name of the tree from which they are commonly carved.
Dense and fine-grained, dogwood timber has a density of .079 and is highly prized for making loom shuttles, tool handles and other small items that require a very hard and strong wood. Though it is tough for woodworking, some artisans favour dogwood for small projects such as walking canes, longbows, mountain dulcimers and fine inlays. Dogwood wood is an excellent substitute for persimmon wood in the heads of certain golf clubs (“woods”). Dogwood lumber is rare in the fact that it is not readily available with any manufacturer and must be cut down by the person(s) wanting to use it. Larger items have also been occasionally made of dogwood, such as the screw-in basket-style wine or fruit presses. The first kinds of laminated tennis rackets were also made from this wood, cut into thin strips. Dogwood twigs were used by pioneers to brush their teeth. They would peel off the bark, bite the twig and then scrub their teeth.
Photo Credit: all Thorp Perrow