Thursday, March 29, 2012


Folks in middle Tennessee say that if a cold snap occurs when the dogwood blooms, we’ll experience a “dogwood winter,” but nothing has snapped here yet, and the beautiful white inflorescence of numerous dogwoods at Sewanee have been clustering a gracious plenty this last week of March. Typically, the trees bloom in mid-April, frequently as late as May, and a “dogwood winter” sometimes follows close behind the flowering.

Thankfully, the weather during this dogwood blooming is perfect, with sun-filled days when the temps climb only to 70 degrees and slight winds breeze through the Cumberland Plateau. Following the advice of gardeners around Sewanee, we planted a small flower garden in the backyard because locals believe that it is safe to dig in the dirt after dogwoods blossom. However, another note of caution for early planters -- according to farmers and gardeners, a “blackberry winter” occurs when a cold snap coincides with the time blackberries are in bloom, which is typically during early to mid-May. So perhaps we’re not out of the woods regarding weather snaps yet.

Hopefully, the weather and the white blanket of flowers will hold until Easter Sunday because many Christians regard the dogwood flowers as religious symbols of the season. Their white petals symbolize Christ’s white robe, and the red dots on their tips symbolize the blood of the Crucifixion. Also, the dogwood tree is reputed to have provided the wood for the cross on which Christ was crucified. At that time, dogwood trees grew tall; however, because of Christ’s death, the legend states that God stunted the dogwood species to prevent their future use as crosses for crucifixion. As a result, few dogwood trees today can be called “towering” (according to apocrypha that is).

The wood from dogwood trees in this neck of the woods is often used for mountain dulcimers, cane, and for fine inlays, and is also utilized for wine or fruit presses. According to folklore, another former use for dogwood was as a tooth brush. Pioneers moving West would peel off bark, bite the twig, and scrub their teeth, according to Gunn’s Domestic Medicine. However, as a lover of old Western movies, I don’t have much to say about the not-so-good-looking teeth of the heroes portrayed on the big screen. In fact, some of them were toothless (excepting John Wayne, of course)!

The dogwood tree has been adopted as the state flower of Virginia, as well as North Carolina and Sorth Carolina. When I was in my early thirties, my Godmother Dora, who lived in Blacksburg, Virginia, always wanted me to visit her in April when the Virginia woods were dense with dogwood blooms, but I missed the blooming every year. I often think of how she would have loved the Tennessee countryside in the Spring. Sunlight heightens the white blooms of the dogwoods that are at the edge of our small forest, and the trees grow well as understories in the semi-shade. I look at them and think of Oriental poets brushing into life their haiku poems about flowers and feel that early Easter blessings have already come to my province on The Mountain.

Rumi, the famous 13th century Persian poet, penned a few poems about Spring flowers resembling the dogwood blooms. One is entitled “Spring to Christ,” and a snippet is excerpted below:

“…Spring is Christ
raising martyred plants from their shrouds,
their mouths open in gratitude,
wanting to be kissed…”
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