From Dogwoods: The Genus Cornus by Paul Cappiello and Don Shadow:
“Where does one begin with the dogwoods? From the battlefields of ancient Troy to the most humble and celebrated gardens, to modern molecular biology, the dogwoods have touched our history through the ages and are among the most recognizable of the plant kingdom’s treasures.
“Of course, in penultimate position sits one of the top dogs of the garden-plant world, the flowering dogwood, Cornus florida. A singular specimen in bloom seems quite enough to break the wretched hold of Hades and allow Persephone to ascend once again, bringing spring to a bleak and barren winter landscape….
“Beyond the world of the ethereal, dogwoods have figured central to the march of civilization in many ways. Cornus mas was said to have provided the wood used by Odysseus and his men to build the Trojan horse and finally wrestle victory from the hands of defeat. The branches that were too small to provide lumber were used as arrow shafts….
“Historically, some European species have been cultivated for centuries…. As ornamentals, the tree species have consistently been the big winners of gardeners’ affections. Almost immediately after the first ships returned to England from the New World, seedlings of Cornus florida began showing up in British nursery catalogs….
“Dogwoods have been with us since the time of the dinosaurs….”
From “Branches” in Spans: New and Selected Poems by Elizabeth Seydel Morgan:
Somewhere in here it’s there, in a tributary
of circuitry, among the jungled arbors,
the ramifications of the heart —
it’s the forked road up the mountain
it’s the dirt road to the left
way back in the pale light of April
against dark and leafless hardwood branches
the dogwood flashes white….
I took the photos for this post (and the next one) a couple of weeks ago, surprised to see the dogwoods so filled with blooms. They usually bust out in mid- to late-April, those with white or cream-colored flowers typically appearing first, followed soon by red ones. So far, though, I’ve not seen any of the reds; plants of all sorts seem to be behaving weirdly this year, emerging on odd schedules and showing unusual growth patterns — in part, I think, because of the deep freeze we experienced toward the end of last December through early January.
That’s an interesting mythological tidbit above — in the first quotation — about the Trojan Horse being built from the wood of a dogwood tree. I had never heard that before, and, unfortunately, the authors don’t provide any sources for the claim. As is often the case, the authors’ switch to the passive voice — “Cornus mas was said…” — is a hint at ambiguity, one that could have been easily address by simply saying who said it. In a different book about dogwoods — Self-Portrait with Dogwood by Christopher Merrill — quizzicisms are raised:
“In Dogwoods, the definitive guide to the species that are available in nurseries, Paul Cappiello and Don Shadow suggest that the tree was ‘central to the march of civilization,’ since wood from Cornus mas, the dogwood native to southern Europe, Iran, the Levant, and other parts of Eurasia, was supposedly used to build the Trojan horse, the fabulous contraption in which Odysseus and his men hid while the rest of the Greek forces pretended to sail home….
“The European dogwood, also known as the cornelian cherry, is probably too small to have supplied planks for the Trojan horse. But the wood is elastic and hard enough to lend credence to the story that the Greeks’ weapons were made from it; the classics scholar Minor M. Markle III argues that for centuries it was ‘prized as the best material for spears, javelins, and bows.’ Philip II of Macedon used it to create the sarissa, the long double-pointed pike central to the success of the phalanx, the infantry formation that changed the nature of warfare. By the time his son Alexander the Great began his conquest, Markle writes, ‘the name of the wood was used in poetry as a synonym for spear.'”
Nevertheless, Dogwoods: The Genus Cornus is a lovely book, notable for its broad coverage of all sorts of dogwoods and the accompanying photographs — even of many shrubbier plants that I would have never guessed were members of the Cornus genus. It’s available on The Internet Archive’s Books to Borrow collection; if you have (or create) and account there, you can check it out at this link.
Maybe on my next outing I’ll find some discarded dogwood branches on the ground, sharpen them like spears, and stab me up some litter to see how well they work.
Thanks for reading and taking a look!
Maybe the Greeks got the wood for the Trojan Horse from the same lumberyard that supplied Noah with gopher wood for his Ark. And gave butterfly bush for that convict’s raft in “Papillon.”
Yes, it has been said that these things are also true.
Where has it been said? Right here, by you!
Learning history is fun!
I’d never read about the Greek weapons, that’s very interesting. I’ve got a cousin who loves classical history, I’ll forward this to him. And I forgot to say, that I love the “Branches” poem, Elizabeth Morgan is also new to me.
It’s fun to go hunting for these unexpected historical references to plants — especially when I find something like that.
Elizabeth Morgan was new to me too; the book is available to borrow from the Internet Archive, at https://archive.org/details/spansnewselected0000morg, if you want to check out some of her other poems.