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What's In A Name?

04/02/2013 09:44PM ● Published by Jennifer Gonzalez

By Bryan Mims

Bryan Mims ponders the importance of the dogwood tree

I had never given much thought to the origin of the name “dogwood tree.” Like turkey oaks or cattails or rabbit bush, I assumed some whimsical botanist must have found something in the tree that conjured images of the animal kingdom.

The tree has always made a name for itself in my book as one of spring’s great fanfares of color. Its creamy petals make a splash in neighborhoods and parks and deep woods. Most dogwoods have white flowers — they’re the natural trees — while the pink dogwoods are mutants whose roots can be traced to 19th Century Pennsylvania. A white dogwood grows outside my kitchen window, and I eagerly wait for it to dress up in its springtime bridal veil.

Fayetteville bills itself the “City of Dogwoods,” a slogan to which I have, in fact, given much thought. The phrase is as inviting to me as creamy petals adrift in a gentle spring rain. It portrays our city as a Southern Eden, abounding in natural beauty. I know, I know, for those of you who’ve seen too much of The Boulevard and Skibo Road, your eyes are rolling right about now. But in truth, you don’t need to look through rose-colored glasses to view Fayetteville as a floral wonderland.

Consider a drive along the city’s Dogwood Trail. It courses like a vine through historic neighborhoods with luxuriant yards, many of them shaded by this authentic American tree — the dogwood. It’s the classic American tree, native to as many as 40 of our states.

And it’s the classic North Carolina tree. The four petals of the dogwood bloom are the state flower of North Carolina. Yes, we may be the land of the longleaf pine, but you’ll be grasping at straws to find a longleaf in Mount Airy or Black Mountain or Maggie Valley. Not so the dogwood. From my front yard to the front slope of the Blue Ridge, the dogwood dabs color to every one of our state’s 100 counties. It is as much at home in a cool mountain cove as it is in the pine-and-oak flatwoods of our vast coastal plain.

It’s a hardy tree, a gift of the American forest primeval. It’s a tree that would outlive any of us who seek its shade. But in the last half century, the dogwood has faced stiff competition from a horticultural upstart: the Bradford pear. North Carolinians have a love affair with the fast-growing Bradford pear, though it’s hardly the classic American tree. It’s a native of China and Korea and was introduced in this country by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1963.

I admit: the tree has lovely white blossoms that bloom early and an eye-popping crimson hue in the fall, but the beauty is superficial. The tree begins falling apart after, say, 25 years. To me, they look like lollypops, their branches shaped unnaturally round on stick-like trunks. But they are ubiquitous in North Carolina, decorating urban parking lots and medians and subdivisions and long, farmhouse driveways.

The Bradford pear is fast food, quick and satisfying. But the dogwood is cooked-to-order from a fine restaurant. It’s slower, it demands patience, but is worth the wait.

And in this season of the dogwood blooms in a city of dogwoods, I am giving some thought to the origin of the name. The wood of the tree is hard and sturdy, thus it’s widely accepted that the name sprouted from the Celtic word “dag” or “dagga.” The wood could be to make a sharp, pointed tool called a “dagge.”

There’s another story, one that’s mostly discredited as the source of the tree’s name. It turns out that the bark of the dogwood does have a link to those creatures that bark. It was used way-back-when to treat dogs with mange. People would boil the bark and wash their dogs in the liquid, albeit the medical effects were quite negligible.

But it’s not the story behind the tree’s name that’s front and center to me. And it’s not what’s inside that much matters, either. It’s the beauty – long-lasting, authentic American beauty.

A beauty that deserves our deep appreciation.

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