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Sacred Trees in the Americas: Flowering Dogwood (Cornus Florida) Magic, Medicine, and Mythology

With the advent of Beltane, it is an excellent time to share about the magic and sacredness of the dogwood tree–a tree that is in bloom across the landscape this time of year. I feel like dogwood is one of those trees that everyone knows, but nobody takes the time to know well.  In all of my time in the druid community, when people talk about their favorite trees, I don’t think I’ve ever heard dogwood mentioned.  She’s a quiet and unassuming understory tree, and after her spring show of white or pink bracts and yellowish tiny flowers, she fades into the rest of the forest.  And yet, in studying her medicine and ecology, we can gain so much from this wonderful tree.

Dogwood is a popular tree here in North America, both as a native tree found in the understories and edges of Oak-Hickory forests throughout its wide range (from Ontario to Florida, and across to Kansas and Oklahoma and down to Texas). It is also a common ornamental tree, and thus, an excellent one for both those who are urban or suburban druids and rural druids to know.  Let’s take a journey today into the magic, mythology, medicine, and human uses of the dogwood tree! North America has many, many varieties of dogwood. Today I’ll focus most of my comments on the common “Flowering Dogwood” (Cornus Florida, pictured in my photos) but recognize that many dogwoods are similar enough energetically to have similar features.

Dogwood in bloom!

Dogwood in bloom!

This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon on our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the US East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022–so you will be seeing a lot more tree posts!) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Dogwood in early spring

Dogwoods are abundant in North America, with seventeen species in the United States alone, including four tree species and thirteen species of shrub; the flowering dogwood is one of the four tree species. Flowering dogwood is an understory tree characterized by beautiful showy white bracts (that appear to be white petals) with an inner cluster of yellow flowers that bloom in spring.  If you look closely at a dogwood, you can see the difference!  Where I live in Western Pennsylvania, Flowering Dogwood is typically blooming from Mid-April to Mid-May, depending on how quickly things warm.  The dogwood, like other understory plants, blooms early, before leaves are on the tree, and takes advantage of the light before the overstory cover grows.  Pale yellow flowers eventually give way to showy red berries that grow in small clusters (just like the flowers) in the fall (October), to complement the beautiful red-purple fall leaves.

One of the characteristics of flowering dogwood is the growth habit of the tree which you can see from the photos in this post–branches often grow mostly horizontal and then, at the very ends, turn to the sky and are tipped with beautiful white or pink bracts and yellow flowers.  Some may grow more spindly or more full, depending on the location, environmental features, or cultivar. The leaves are opposite on the trunk, but the entire tree has a very “open” quality to its growth habit appearing, at times, almost bonsai-like.  The dogwood is a fairly short-lived tree, living about 80 years and prefers slightly acidic soil.

As an understory tree, you can often find flowering dogwood on well-drained and fertile soil in dappled sunlight.  It is larger than a shrub or bush (so higher than spicebush) and is a small understory tree.  Flowering dogwood is commonly found in the understory of oak-hickory forests as along fertile edges (you can often see them along a fence row or between fields).  When they are in the forest, they are often 10-20 feet high and have a 4-6″ trunk, but when they are out in the open, they can grow up to 40 feet high with a thicker trunk, particularly in the southernmost areas of its range.  Of course, a range of ornamentals with varying heights and flower colors are present and can be purchased at nurseries.

While some dogwoods produce very delicious edible fruit (such as the Kousa Dogwood), the Flowering dogwood’s fruits are small, bitter, and not very palatable, although the bitter quality of the fruit can be used to make digestive bitters (see below).  The Flowering Dogwood fruit is an excellent food source for birds (who help distribute the seeds).  Dogwood also is a larval host for a number of moths, including the Dogwood Thyratid Moth, the Stinging Rose moth, and the Grand Arches Moth.

If you are interested in finding some dogwood–the time is now.  Here in Western PA, the leaves are just starting to come back onto the trees and the white-pink dogwood bracts are in bloom, so you can go through any forest and very easily pick out the dogwoods (and apples, hawthorns) due to their blooming.  In a few more weeks, they will fade into the rest of the understory!

Human Uses

Close up of dogwood bark with a bit of English Ivy

Despite its small size, dogwood has a very valuable wood that is hard and tough, close-grained, and quite heavy.  traditionally, according to Grimm, it is used for shuttles for weaving due to its toughness.  It has also been traditionally used for turning (tool handles, mallet heads, golf club heads, engraver’s blocks).  According to Sargent, Dogwood was also used for bearings of machinery or even the hubs of small wheels due to its strength.

It was also used for making inks and dyes.  Emerson notes that a blank ink can be made from the bark of the branches and trunk (especially if mixed with gum arabic and iron sulfate – see here for how to make a rust garden for harvesting iron sulfate), while a scarlet dye was made from the roots (I have yet to test either of these, but they sound wonderful!).

Emerson notes that the Micmac Indians dried the bark and smoked it, combining it with tobacco. Emerson also notes that when the flowers appeared on the dogwood, many Native tribes in the Eastern US used this as a sign to plant their corn.

In the bushcraft communities, Dogwood is known as a hard but useful spindle for making friction fires (either bow drill or hand drill technique), especially when combined with American Sycamore, Red Elm, or Red Cedar (Juniper).  The harder the spindle, the more difficult it is to make a fire, and hence, it is considered a wood appropriate for more advanced friction fire makers.  Due to its hardness, Dogwood also produces very nice cooking coal and also can be used to produce charcoal.

A fungus called anthracnose fungus has been attacking dogwoods of all kinds, leading to a widespread decline in this tree and making it critically endangered in several states in the US, including New York and Vermont.

Medicine

Dogwood in a forest setting in late spring

Dogwood was historically very important for the treatment of malaria, typhoid, and influenza, but, according to Matthew Wood in the Earthwise Herbal: New World Plants,  it has gone out of favor in more recent times, primarily because Malaria is on the decline.  The most important traditional treatment of Malaria was Quinine, which was made from the Cinchona tree that grows in Central and South America. According to Rafinesque in 1828 (as cited in Emerson), it is the best North American substitute for Quinine, although it contains differing amounts of the same chemicals present in Quinine.  Both Quinine and Dogwood are potent medicines that do produce side effects: Dogwood raises one’s pulse and may also produce abdominal cramping, but will strongly support a body’s fever response and destroy the malaria infection.

The traditional use is peeling the bark, drying the bark for some months,  and then making a strong tea (decoction).  Some early doctors noted that they preferred to use the bark of the root as opposed to the bark of the tree for this purpose (Emerson). All traditional sources indicate that the bark should be dried for a period of months (up to a year) which will reduce stomach cramping and produce more effective medicine.

In colonial times, the twigs of the dogwood were used as tooth sticks to help keep the teeth clean and the gums in good health. “Yellow Water”, which was a decoction of the bark, was used to cure distemper in horses. When combined with Sassafras, it was used to help clean ulcers and treat cancer.

A tincture of the berries was also used for digestive bitters–both sources I have (Emerson and “Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests”) both suggest they were used by poor people or country people for this purpose.  I’m getting the sense from the wording of these that these dogwood berry bitters may have been considered a “poor person’s” medicine or folk medicine.

During the civil war, the inner bark of Flowering Dogwood was used both to treat malaria (as described above) and as an astringent to stop wounds from bleeding out.  This, in particular, saved many soldiers in the Confederacy (who published a book called, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural.”

Matthew Wood notes that dogwood is intensely bitter, so much so that the bitter literally “shakes the frame, specific for intermittent chill and fever attacking the system” (127).  He also notes that it was considered to be one of the “elk medicines” by the indigenous Americans, specifically used to treat kidneys and sexual function.  It is used for constriction/tension as well as stagnant states.   It has a very specific use for influenza or chronic malaria where the body has intermittent fever and chills along with digestive atonicity (from repeated chills) including indigestion acidity, acid reflux, diarrhea, and/or nausea combined with great exhaustion.  Wood recommends a fluid extract OR tincture (5-10 drops) as larger doses upset the stomach.  Decoction of small branches and twigs may be less upsetting to the stomach.  It is a bitter/acrid plant with astringent and slightly aromatic bark.

Western Magical Traditions

The beautiful dogwood behind our shed on the homestead!

Like many other quiet understory trees, the dogwood does not have a place at the table in terms of magical uses.  This doesn’t mean the tree doesn’t have its own amazing magic–it simply hasn’t been acknowledged (as far as my research has indicated) in the literature, either of American Hoodoo, Traditional Western Magical Practices, or Folk magical traditions.

Culpepper notes that the dogwood is under the power of Jupiter, which Culpepper notes governs luck, increase, nourishment, and the “spirit of life”.  I think this is an important quality to note, and one that will come into play in my own magical and divination uses of this sacred tree.

The one traditional Appalacian folk tale about dogwood that is prevalent comes from the Christian tradition, where Jesus was said to be nailed to a cross of dogwood, and dogwood decided to never again grow tall enough to be made into a cross again.  This tale is actually quite dominant in the Southern and Northern Appalachians (I heard it here as a child), and actually is quite in line with the other meanings I believe dogwood to have, based on its medicinal features.

Naming and Etymology

John Eastman offers a theory of his own for the name dogwood–he says that the fresh-cut wood has a “fetid smell” that resembles the smell of dog feces (p. 72).  I will note that this does not appear to be the case with Flowering Dogwood in my experience, but some of the shrub-style dogwoods certainly have that odor!  I can’ find no other reasons listed in my sources for why “Dogwood” is called “Dogwood!”  I will also note that dogwood has a number of names including corner, bunchberry, box-wood, arrow-wood, or white cornel.   Some of these can speak to the historical uses of the tree.

Magic and Divination Uses of Dogwood

The Dogwood tree, while small and unassuming, has powerful lessons to teach.  In the absence of mythology

Bitter Medicine. Dogwood’s most distinct feature is its use to treat severe flu-like illnesses including malaria, typhoid fever, and various “auges.” And while Dogwood is as effective as quinine for this treatment, she also comes at a cost–both physically being very bitter medicine and offering the recipient stomach cramping and an increased heart rate.  While the medicine can be tempered through time, the bitterness and acrid quality of dogwood’s root and bark is ever-present.  Thus, Dogwood teaches us the value of bitter medicine and bitter lessons–those we need to have but don’t necessarily want.  Communing with dogwood during such lessons may offer us deeper insights into ourselves and the nature of our own necessary experience in the world.

Short-term Pain for Long Term Gain. A second theme that we can learn from the dogwood is the importance of the phrase “no pain, no gain.” Dogwood teaches us that life is often full of pain that can be short-term, but in the long run, open us up for rich opportunities–if we are in the right mindset. Learning from our struggles and pain and transforming them into good is a core part of what it means to be human, and Dogwood is our companion on this path in this regard.

Confidence and Grit. The Dogwood is one tough little tree, growing in the understory, blooming early, and offering extremely dense wood and powerful medicine. She encourages us to develop the “grit” (determination, endurance, resiliency, and adaptability) to survive the coming onslaught of so much.  Even though she doesn’t have much stature, she is sure of herself and her skills and is able to face the world with confidence.

For all three of these meanings, one of the things I want to stress is that the Dogwood, while offering its bitter medicine, is under the dominion of Jupiter, the planet of luck and good fortune. This powerful combination allows us to know that despite any challenges or pain we face–we can survive!

The Tears of the Earth: A Hike on Sólheimajökull Glacier

Sólheimajökull

Sólheimajökull

It was our final day in Iceland before returning back to the US. We so many great experiences visiting this country of beautiful extremes, but more than anything, what we wanted to see on our last day was a glacier. We talked about it, and decided that we should see a glacier, as we might never be able to see one again. We booked a beginner glacier hike on Sólheimajökull glacier, a hike that took you way up into the glacier.

 

Where the glacier used to be, 2010. Where I am standing and taking the photograph is where it was in mid 2009.

It was a misty and cool day; small droplets of rain pressed against us at the parking lot at the base of the glacier. Before us, the Sólheimajökull glacier loomed, white and black and gray. After getting fitted with safety harnesses, helmets, crampons, and pick axes, our group of twelve set off to the glacier hike. Our guide, who was originally from the Alps and who had been hiking glaciers his whole life, first took us to a sign as we walked along the edge of an enormous lake. He stopped and said, “In 2010, this is where the glacier was. Each year, it gets smaller. In the winter, it stops melting but never regrows. But we’ve still got quite a hike to get to the glacier as you can see.” The sign he showed us had many different numbers with years. Last year, in 2018, the glacier receded more than any other year: 118 meters. And so, we continued our hike, which took about 15 minutes, walking along the edge glacier’s melt pool.  This link offers a video that shows the melting of the Sólheimajökull glacier from the years 2007- 2015.

 

One of the tours they now advertise in Iceland the “kayak the glacier” experience. There is a kind of horseshoe shaped lake that is made when a glacier reaches its largest size and then begins to melt. You’ve seen this shape before on a map: its reflected in the bowl-shaped bottom of Lake Michigan. That bowl shape is created by the melting of a glacier. As a glacier advances, it  moves earth itself, pushing up stone, soil, and bedrock; the powerful edge of it creating a wall of stone. As the glacier recedes, it leaves that wall of stone behind, and as it melts, that stone creates a natural dam, and the bowl-shaped area behind the dam fills with water. Water that tourists can kayak in. Water that is created, in part, by the 2600 miles it took me to fly to Iceland. Water that is, for all intents and purposes, the tears that the earth cries.

 

Icebergs and the melt pool at Sólheimajökull

Icebergs and the melt pool at Sólheimajökull

As I stood at the bottom of the glacier, I realized how small I was in comparison to the massive block of ice. The Sólheimajökull glacier took up all the space, moving into our field of vision, white, black, and sometimes blue, daunting in its appearance. As we got close, you could see the shimmering of the melt water coming off of it, moving into the lake below.  Icebergs, also, floated in the lake–our guide explained that those icebergs crack off the glacier frequently and will likely be gone by the end of the summer.  So much ice.  So much to melt.

 

We carefully put our crampons on our feet and, single file, began our ascent into the glacier.  As soon as we stepped foot on the glacier, my heart grew heavy with sorrow. The most striking feature of the glacier wasn’t the beauty. It wasn’t the black ash from various volcanic activity, or the white and blue ice. The most striking feature was how fast it was melting. Everywhere the glacier was melting. The day we were there, it was around 50 degrees, now a fairly common temperature for Iceland this time of year. And everywhere you looked, the glacier was glistening. Little drips became streams, streams became bigger streams, and eventually, they flowed into quite large rivers, running down the glacier. Standing anywhere on the glacier, you could observe this and watch the ice melt and take milennia of black and gray ash along with it.

 

At one point, our guide stopped and pointed to a mountain quite far off from where we stood. Less than a decade ago, he told us, the glacier reached up to that nearby mountain. Now, that mountain isn’t reachable, the glacier is much lower, and there is a glacial river between us. I stood there and thought about it: that must have been millions of gallons of water in that short time, all melted away into the lake and eventually, ocean nearby.

 

Mountain where Sólheimajökull used to reach

Mountain where Sólheimajökull used to reach

The amount of melting made the Sólheimajökull a bit difficult to traverse. The tour company maintained a trail on the glacier, but it was an ever-moving target. As we hiked, we two people working on the trail on the glacier. They would cut a set of stairs, and then, within an hour or two, the stairs would melt and become dangerous and they’d have to cut new ones. This ever-evolving trail was now just part of the experience of walking on a glacier, as our guide explained.

 

The walk was a walk of extremes. The solid white and blue ice. The black and gray of the volcanic ash becoming unlocked as the glacier melted. One of the folks on our walk asked, “can we tell what volcanic eruption this ash came from?” Our guide said, “No, it all just melts together.” You could be standing on ash and melt from 10,000 years ago or even 100,000. Scientists with specialized equipment drilling core samples could tell, but we could not.  Here is an image of the entire glacier, Myrdalsjokull, from 1986 to September 2014.  The glacier we walked was one “arm” of this larger glacier.  You can see how massive it is, and you can glimpse the volcano that sits beneath.

 

Throughout our week in Iceland, I didn’t get a strong sense that the spirits of the land were welcoming or open to outsiders. Icelanders certainly capitalize on their island’s natural beauty as part of their tourist industry. And while you might enter a lava cave and be told of rooms called “the banquet hall of the elves” or “the troll’s den”,  or, you might see the stone stacks throughout the land that are there to appease the little people, the Icelandic people are not willing to talk about those aspects of their land.  They don’t speak of their relationship to the land spirits with outsiders. And neither do those spirits of the land seem interested in saying hello.  So I spent the week in Iceland not engaged heavily with the spirits of the land; things were just quiet.  Thus, I was certainly surprised when even before I walked up to it, the glacier immediately reached out to me and wanted to convey a message.

 

Meltwater on the Sólheimajökull glacier

Meltwater on the Sólheimajökull glacier

As we climbed Sólheimajökull, I connected deeply with the spirit of place. The glacier itself, and the spirit of the mountain—between two active volcanoes, Katla and Eyjafjallajökull. Sólheimajökull first shared with me its anger, so angry that it was melting away. So angry at humans. I could feel the stress and strain as it spoke to me: to tell people what you have seen here. Tell of how the melting will flood their cities. Speak of the truth you have witnessed. I felt the anger in its voice, the anger radiating out of it, as it knew it was dying.

 

We continued to climb the glacier, witnessing its tragic beauty among the melting ice. Then a second voice emerged from Sólheimajökull, this one of sadness. I am losing myself, the glacier said. I am crying tears for the world. How many people who climb me today will speak of what they have seen? How many will change because of it?  How many have made me cry further just to walk upon me? I cry for us, the glacier said, and I cry for the world.

 

We had to climb over a large crevasse with water rushing through it. Our guide explained that this kind of crevasse was very dangerous and could easily drown you if you fell in.  Eventually this crevasse would literally crack a large chunk of the glacier off into the melt pool. As I navigated the crevice, I heard the glacier speak once again, this time, in despair. What is happening is happening. There is nothing to be done.  Our melting will reshape the world. I have been here for so long, and someday, I will be here again. But in the meantime, my waters will travel far and wide.

 

Upon meditation on this experience after returning home, I realized that I was hearing the many voices of this glacier working through the many stages of grief.  I was experiencing the grief that this sacred place was experiencing, conveying to me, perhaps so I could convey it to you.

 

Crevasse in melting glacier

Crevasse in melting glacier

We got to a high point on the glacier where you could see it continue to rise up for many miles into the mist.  Here the glacier flattened out quite a bit. It was here that our guide swung two pickaxes in the ice to create handholds and let us kneel down on them to drink the fresh glacial melt-water. Pure, cold, refreshing. As I drank the water, thirsty from our climb, I could feel the energy of the glacier. As I drank, the emotions that the glacier was conveying to me welled up within me, overflowing. Anger, fear, sadness, despair, acceptance. All at once, those feelings spread throughout me. As we made our way back down, I simply allowed myself to experience the myriad of complex feelings of this place.

 

The next day, on our flight home, we flew over Greenland and the lower part of the Arctic before landing back in the US. I looked down, out of the window of the plane, and saw so many small chunks of ice participating in their own complex patterns of melting, this time, with nobody to hear or witness up close.

 

Melting ice from the plane

Melting ice from the plane

How much damage did this trip to Iceland cost the earth? That’s the part that has been perhaps the hardest for me to process, as I’ve been thinking about and meditating on this experience. I went on this trip for pleasure. I’ve had little chance to travel, and I wanted to experience new things and visit somewhere completely different. But my very engagement with this glacier, my presence there, was part of why it was melting. Sure, you can say, but Dana, you can always offset your carbon for this. And yes, I always do offset my carbon from travel at the end of the year (most of it work related). But does that  offset matter? In the end, I chose to engage in an activity that speeded the melting of this sacred place.helped this glacier melt. One article, I read recently suggested that each trans-Atlantic flight, like the one I took, melts about 30 square feet of Arctic sea ice.  So for myself, my round trip contributed to 60 square feet of ice melted in the Arctic.

 

Just like the glacier, I’m full of a myriad of complex emotions. I’m glad to have this experience. I’m saddened by it. I recognize my own part in this.  I feel sorrow and anger and acceptance. We are all on the front lines of climate change, the 6th extinction happening, the age of the Anthropocene.  Every one of us is living in a time where we are aware of the problem, many of us trying to do something about it. At the same time, by participating in modern life, we can’t help but contributing to it.  This is the great Catch-22 of our age.  To see the glacier is to destroy the glacier.  To use fossil fuels necessary for modern life is to burn them.  How can I afford solar panels for my home without commuting to work each day in a fossil fuel powered vehicle?  The glacier weeps as I write.

 

But the other thing that this lesson has powerfully taught me is the power of experience. How many people, in seeing that melting glacier could really deny the truth of climate change? How could it be denied that these things are happening, powerfully and directly, before our very eyes?  This experience has changed me. I “knew” about the glaciers melting before.  Knew as in I intellectually engaged in an understanding about the fact that glaciers worldwide were melting. But it was not till I stood upon one, till I connected with the spirit of that place, and until I confronted my own contribution to that melting, could I really have wisdom surrounding it.

 

The glacier

The glacier

As I write these words, I’m attempting to convey some of that wisdom, that direct experience, but my words cannot have the impact of that weeping glacier. Book knowledge is what we engage with intellectually and logically, what we read or hear in order to better understand something. Book knowledge is mitigated by human language, words on paper or spoken aloud. These words, as I write them, are read by your eyes and processed by your brain. But they are a pale representation for the experience of standing there, of seeing the glacier weep, drinking its meltwater, and feeling its pain. But I’ve done my best, dear reader, and I hope it gives you a small piece into this experience and into that of one melting glacier. Can we find these same kinds of changes in our own ecosystems, and use them as local teaching tools? Perhaps we can, and perhaps that’s a message I can leave you with today.

 

PS:  I’m excited to announce that I just signed my first book contract a few weeks ago!  Because of this, I will be taking a few weeks off of blogging so that I can prepare my manuscript to submit to the publisher (which is quite a bit of work).  I’ll keep you updated on the progress, release date, etc.  Thanks for your understanding!