It is absolutely not true that I am not a dog lover.
My favorite dogs in the woods, though, are the dogwoods, those flowering beauties whose bark is worse than their bite. And, contrary to canines, you can teach an old dogwood a new trick: that of fantastic flowering each year, and pollen dispersion far and wide.
While most of the dogwoods we see in yards or gardens are cultivars (a horticulturally or agriculturally derived variety of a plant), I was surprised to find out that Martha’s Vineyard is (or was) home to a handful of native dogwoods.
Dogwoods hail from the family Cornaceae, which include four natives plus another plant that might surprise you. Beetlebung, or tupelo trees are part of this family, making them a sibling to the dogwoods. But so far, dogwoods don’t yet have a corner or a coffee shop named after them on the island.
The genus, Cornus, is the scientific namesake of dogwoods. The aforementioned varieties includes: dwarf dogwood or bunchberry (cornus canadensis), flowering dogwood (cornus florida), white dogwood (cornus racemosa), and pagoda dogwood (cornus alterniflora).
There is little to say about the white dogwood, which is no longer found on the Island. Historic records show that it existed on Chappaquiddick, but unfortunately is not there any more. The pagoda dogwood, while rare, can be occasionally seen if you know where to look.
The dwarf dogwood is also only a memory since it too is no longer with us, but in the past was found in Chilmark. This is a shame, since the dwarf dogwood holds a most unusual title: the fastest plant on earth.
A racing greyhound would have nothing on this dog. The flowers of the dwarf dogwood have filaments that explode, accelerating pollen at 24,000 meters per second, or about 15 miles per second! This is about 800 times faster than the force of the space shuttle lifting off, 2,400 times the acceleration of gravity, and quicker than the time a bullet takes travelling through a rifle barrel. A camera shooting 10,000 frames per second would be necessary to capture the action. The catapult will take the pollen high into the air, up to 10 times the height of the flower itself, allowing for enhanced insect and wind-borne pollination.
The last variety, the flowering dogwood, can’t claim any world titles, but does have many uses. The wood of the tree was made into golf club handles, mallets, rake teeth, loom spindles and shuttles, jewelry boxes, tool handles, and butcher blocks. The name dogwood came from ‘dagwood,’ with ‘dag’ meaning daggers or skewers.
Flowering dogwood is one of the most popular ornamental trees, notable for the cleft at the tip of each of the white petals. Furthermore, in the only reference to the animal dog, the bark of this dogwood was used to wash canines and was said to reduce fever in humans.
This tree was also known for the great strength of its wood. Morbid as it may be, dogwood was used by Romans to fashion crosses to execute criminals. Legend has it that the wood used for Jesus’ cross was dogwood, which (as the story goes) was at that time straight and large like oak trees; after the crucifixion, however, dogwood trees became twisted and gnarled, so that never again could it to be used for such a cruel punishment.
On a happier note, it’s well known that dogs and woods go well together; in this case, they combine in the name of one of the most attractive doggone flowering trees in forest or field.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.