Dogwood Days


Bunchberry photograph by Flickr user Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

This spring secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced that the United States is sending 3,000 dogwoods to Japan, a reciprocal gesture of goodwill for Japan’s gift of 3,000 ornamental cherry trees a hundred years ago.

When it’s in bloom, the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) upstages all other trees. The broad, white bracts that surround clusters of pin-head flowers are commonly mistaken for petals, but they are actually four modified leaves, elegantly notched and perpendicular. Alas, the tree’s range ends south of the Adirondacks.

But there are other dogwoods, and now is the time to look for North Country natives in flower. The showiest is actually the smallest—not a tree but an ankle-high herb on the cool woodland floor. Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) bracts also form tidy white crosses. The plants grow in clustered patterns as mesmerizing as a Persian carpet, motifs organized by soil and rock.

In some parts bunchberry is called puddingberry, apparently because pectin in the fruit was once used as a thickener. The red berries ripen in late summer, around blueberry-picking time. I’ve eaten a few; blueberries are better.

As for other Adirondack dogwoods, the leaves—not the flowers—are the giveaway. All dogwoods (genus Cornus) have distinctive symmetrical veins that curve out from the mid-rib and back inward near the tip, never quite closing a nested series of almond shapes. This pattern has its own hypnotic powers and is the default doodle in the margins of my notebooks.

The U.S.D.A. estimates that 68 species of dogwood grow in this country. Mike Kudish counted a half dozen types in the central Adirondacks in his 1992 book, Adirondack Upland Flora. Two of these natives grow in my yard in Saranac Lake: pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) and gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa).

The canopy of the pagoda, as its name suggests, mimics a curving roof. It’s a graceful little tree at the edge of the woods. The flowers are tiny, clustered and demure, but birds flock to the fat blue berries in autumn. The gray dogwood is shrubby and disheveled but also a popular feeding stop for migrating thrushes.

Red-osier dogwood is most noticeable when the rich-red woody stems pop in the sepia-scape of winter wetlands. Last week I found another type of dogwood whip as I walked through a raspberry clearing. I picked a few leaves and pressed them into a tree guide, where they wait to be identified.

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