Medicinal Monday – Dogwoods

No taller than 25 feet, the dogwood tree grows from Maine to Florida and as far west as Texas. For many, it is a symbol of spring with its pink or white blossoms, and to Native Americans, it marks the time when crops can be planted. Some, consider it to be one of the most beautiful flowering trees in America. Native Americans long recognized the many medicinal attributes of the dogwood tree and used the roots, berries, and leaves of this tree in many ingenious ways.

Distinguishing Characteristics
With its three to five-inch blossoms and graceful form, the dogwood tree, that is native to North America is beautiful year-round. The dogwood tree usually blossoms in April. An interesting fact is that the blossoms of this tree are not actually flowers but a type of leaf known as bracts. The blossoms last for three or four weeks, and the scarlet berries that follow them can linger into the early winter months. In the summer the dogwood’s beautiful green leaves give way to beautiful scarlet fall foliage and the dark mottled pattern of the bark of this tree provides a beautiful contrast to winter snow. There are eleven species of dogwood trees native to the United States.

Medicinal Uses
Dogwood trees are more than pretty fragrant blossoms to Native Americans who consider these trees as symbols of protection and safety in southeastern Native American tribes. In some Mohawk communities, the primeval Tree of Life in the Sky World is said to be a giant dogwood tree. In Northwestern tribes such as the Quileute and Makah, the dogwood symbolizes good luck. Tribes with dogwood clans include the Zuni tribe, which is called Pikchikwe.

The bark of dogwood tree is a rich source of bitter-tasting tannins. A tea made from the inner bark was used by Native Americans to treat malaria and fever, especially during the Civil War. It was also used to treat pneumonia, colds, and diarrhea; and taken to improve digestion. The berries and roots of the dogwood tree were also used to make a dye. Berries were eaten and could be put into a stew. Dogwood sap, however, is toxic and it is reported that some tribes used this as a poison.

Externally, the inner bark of the dogwood tree was used to heal ulcers and sores. The Cherokee chewed on the bark to relieve a headache and the Arikara mixed it with bearberry. The inner bark was also mixed with tobacco to be used in sacred pipes. Another ingenious use of this tree in the early 19th century was that the Native Americans used the twigs of the dogwood tree to clean their teeth as we would use a toothbrush or toothpick today.

Five Fun Facts About Dogwoods
The English language developed the phrase “dog tree” in 1548. It derived from the word “dagwood” because its slender stems were used for making narrow items like daggers, arrows, and skewers. The name was changed to dogwood in 1614.

Some believe the name dogwood originated because people would wash their dogs in hot dogwood water to treat skin conditions such as mange. Others thought the sound of the wind blowing through the leaves of a dogwood tree sounded like a pack of dogs barking.

Fruit and seed of the dogwood tree are an important source of food for birds and mammals.

During the Victorian Era, men would give an unmarried woman they wanted to court a dogwood blossom to determine her affection for him. Acceptance of the flower was a signal that the lady was interested, a flower that was returned was a sign of unrequited love.

Wood from the dogwood tree is used in the manufacture of roller skates, tool handles, spools, spindles and golf club heads.

About The Institute for American Indian Studies

The Institute for American Indian Studies preserves and educates through discovery and creativity the diverse traditions, vitality, and knowledge of Native American cultures. Through archaeology, the IAIS is able to build new understandings of the world and history of Native Americans, the focus is on stewardship and preservation. This is achieved through workshops, special events, and education for students of all ages.

Located on 15 woodland acres the IAIS has an outdoor Three Sisters and Healing Plants Gardens as well as a replicated 16th c. Algonkian Village. Inside the museum, authentic artifacts are displayed in permanent, semi-permanent and temporary exhibits from prehistory to the present that allows visitors a walk through time. The Institute for American Indian Studies is located on 38 Curtis Road in Washington Connecticut and can be reached online or by calling 860-868-0518.

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