"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Dogwoods with White Blooms (2 of 2)

From Self-Portrait with Dogwood by Christopher Merrill:

“The dogwood’s etymology is murky….

“One theory holds that the name descends from the Old English word for dagger, the wood being hard enough to fashion into goads and arrows as well as skewers and spindles. It furnished shuttles for the textile industry, which flourished in our village until the Civil War, when, as Kelby Ouchley notes in Flora and Fauna of the Civil War, the wood was used for ‘charcoal, engraving, mallets, tool handles, wedges, plane stock, harrow teeth, hames [the curved pieces of a harness], horse collars, ox yokes, wheel hubs, barrel hoops, machinery bearings, and cogs in various types of gears.’ Also gunpowder and toothpicks….

“There was no connection to dogs in the origin of the name, the canine element emerging only with a change in the language, when the a in dag became an o. Dog-tree, Dog-berry, Dog-timber, Houndberry — these names were coined, possibly because the bark was said to make ‘an excellent wash for mangy dogs,’ or because of the barking sound created by branches rubbing together in the wind.”

From “The Dogwoods” in Carnival Evening: New and Selected Poems: 1968-1998 by Linda Pastan:

I remember, in the week
of the dogwoods, why sometimes
we give up everything
for beauty, lose our sense
and our senses, as we do now
for these blossoms, sprinkled
like salt through the dark woods.


This is the second of two posts featuring dogwood trees blooming early this spring. The first post is Dogwoods with White Blooms (1 of 2).

At the end of this post, I’ve included before-and-after versions of four of these photos. Photographing large, bloom-filled trees can be an interesting challenge: there are often so many flowers in both the foreground and background that you end out with no apparent focal point for the images. I often address that by zooming in on individual branches and their flowers; but sometimes I want to include larger sections of the tree with multiple branches and blooms. Doing that, though, causes the camera to further merge foreground and background elements together, especially since I will likely use a higher f-stop, and that tends to flatten the appearance of the image and reduce any sense of three-dimensional depth. I may see certain branches and flowers as the photograph’s subject, but the camera thinks differently: it includes, at least partially in focus, all the elements of the tree that are within the range of the f-stop I selected.

So to give the image a better focal point — which you will perceive as the image’s subject — I use Lightroom’s masking tool to first select the background, a task it does with remarkable accuracy as long as some elements are in focus and they contrast well with the foreground. I then soften and smooth out the background by reducing texture, sharpness, and noise; followed by adjustments to highlights, brightness, and shadows to darken it just enough to create greater differentiation from the foreground. Since I’m effectively pushing the background farther away from you, I may also reduce saturation, because objects that are farther away from our eyes tend to be perceived as containing less color.

Before proceeding, I’ll turn the mask off and on a few times and verify that I’ve included all the background elements I want, and that unmasked areas represent what I will want in the foreground as the subject. For the last photo of the four, then, the masked background looks like this:

I want this background mask as precise as possible, and may adjust it with a brush if it’s included or excluded unwanted elements. I then duplicate and invert the mask (that’s why I wanted it to be so precise), which flips it from a background mask to a foreground (or subject) mask, to look like this:

I can now adjust the appearance of the image’s subject, which — in the case of these dogwoods — typically consists of decreasing shadows and blacks to subtly brighten the flowers, without making them excessively bright. I am generally doing the opposite of what I did to the background, including adding texture (instead of removing it) to give the flowers some additional detail. And since white flowers tend to reflect colors from their surroundings — typically, yellow and green from nearby tree trunks, branches, and leaves; or blue from the sky — I’ll reduce yellow, green, and/or blue from the image overall to whiten the flowers.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Dogwoods with White Blooms (1 of 2)

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
and then
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!

Dogwoods, Red and White (3 of 3)

From Self-Portrait with Dogwood by Christopher Merrill:

“A small deciduous tree, the flowering dogwood belongs to the understory in a hardwood forest, occupying the middle space between the ground and sky, providing nectar for pollinating insects, branches and foliage and fruit for perching and nesting songbirds, nutrients for the soil, ingredients for medicines, wood for bowls and shuttles and tools, and an open invitation for an aging man to reflect on his walk in the sun, to reconsider his relationship to nature, to pay attention to the worlds revolving in his memory, his imagination, and all around him.”


This is the third post in a series featuring photos of dogwood blooms that I took a few weeks ago. The first two posts are:

Dogwoods, Red and White (1 of 3)

Dogwoods, Red and White (2 of 3)

For this post, I “rearranged” bracts and blooms in some of the images, then painted the backgrounds black — because that’s what I like to do!

I just bought Self-Portrait with Dogwood by Christopher Merrill (quoted above) last week. It’s now part of my collection of books about specific types of plants or flowers (see Bearded Irises in Purple and Blue (1 of 2)), and is a series of essays where the author explores the connections between his life and nature, as he researches the history and lifespan of dogwood trees.

His description of dogwoods as “understory in a hardwood forest, occupying the middle space between the ground and sky” caught my eye. It may be a literary flourish; but, also, it’s a fitting characterization of the way natural spaces develop (or redevelop) in layers, in a kind of hierarchy of shorter then taller and taller plants, with each layer serving its purpose in the creation of a woodland, forest, or even garden, as lower layers sometimes (and eventually) get supplanted. Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels is an excellent introduction to interpreting the history of such natural spaces, and — if the subject interests you — I definitely recommend it.

From the book — which focuses on New England in the United States as the author’s source for instruction — you can learn how to observe a natural space and understand decades of its development, based on the appearance of trees and tree trunks, layers of plant growth, the impact of past fires or storms (called “disturbance histories”), and man-made events and structures such as dividing land into pastures by plowing and creating boundaries with the upturned stones. You will also read about tiny plants called “basal rosettes” that are evidence of new beginnings for a wild area; how a tree develops a split or “coppiced” trunk; the meaning of “deadfall” and how broken trees will push up “stump sprouts” because they’re not as dead as they look; and what “pillows and cradles” mean in the appearance of landscapes. These are just a few of the delights contained in its 200 pages, which will teach you to see every natural space with brand new eyes.

(If you would like to view some photographs I took at the time I first read Wessels’ book, photos I took with what I’d learned from the book in mind, see Before and After: Fun with Big Rocks and Before and After: Swamp Things.)

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Dogwoods, Red and White (2 of 3)

From Beautiful at All Seasons: Southern Gardening and Beyond by Elizabeth Lawrence:

“Dogwoods have their troubles. Some springs the blossoms are marred by late frosts, and in some seasons the leaves are disfigured by brown splotches. The beauty of dogwoods in April makes these drawbacks seem unimportant. Other good points are the rich autumn color of the foliage, the bright fruits that hang on after the leaves fall, the lovely form of the bare trees, and the winter pattern of the bud-tipped branches.”

From Let Us Build a City: Eleven Lost Towns by Donald Harrington:

“Not far west of Newton County [in Arkansas] is an actual locale called Dogbranch, and a timeworn Dogbranch Cemetery, and then of course there are dogwood trees everywhere, and also dogbane, dogtooth violet, dogberries, dog days, dogpaddling, dog sled, dogtrot, dog’s life, and dogma, and… ‘dog’ is pronounced ‘dawg’ everywhere….”


Here are a few more dog-dog-dogwood blooms! And, of course, we learned in the previous post (see Dogwoods, Red and White (1 of 3)) what part of these plants is the dogwood flower, didn’t we?

Thanks for taking a look!

Dogwoods, Red and White (1 of 3)

From Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo:

“We take psychological possession of the things we can recognize. To me, getting to know a tree is like getting to know a human being — the more you know, the more the relationship deepens, and a person’s (or a tree’s) capacity to surprise you never ends….

“You may, for example, think you know the flowering dogwood. If it is your state tree, as it is mine, you have probably learned that the white appendages that look like its petals are technically bracts (modified leaves) and that its real flowers are in the center of what we think of as the blossom. But only when you look closer, into the dogwood’s real flowers — about twenty of them clustered in the middle, each with four yellow-green petals — and actually see them blooming, each tiny flower with its complement of four stamens and pistil, does this distinction become meaningful. Like discovering that a person you knew for one talent is accomplished in another… discovering new tree traits broadens your appreciation of the tree….

“And there is absolutely no end to the tree traits waiting to be discovered even in an ordinary backyard.”


I’ve never had the privilege of naming a plant or a tree, but if I ever did, I’d want to change the species name of the dogwood tree from its current name — Cornus florida — to Canis florida since “Canis” is part of the species name for our four-legged barking friends and they surely deserve such an honor. I realize that might cause some species-confusion — naming a tree after a puppydog — but, hey, the names are all made up anyway so people would get used to it after a while. I’m sure you agree…. (or possibly not).

Bark! Bark!

I actually didn’t know that the red or white portion of the plants you see below was not the flower until I read about them in Seeing Trees, quoted above. As noted, the flower is only the center yellow part, barely the diameter of a penny or dime; the rest is a modified leaf — a rather spectacular one, I think. Intriguing to me that the plant evolved that way; presumably the brightly-colored bract is designed to attract pollinators and guide their attention to the flower at the center.

I took these photos during Dogwood Season — late March and early April here — but didn’t work on them until I had finished with my photos from Iris Season (which runs concurrently with the late Dogwood period). You have probably seen those if you’ve been here recently. Driving through parts of my ‘hood earlier, I noticed that Lily Season is starting and developing quickly, so I hope to have some lily photos to show shortly after I finish these three dogwood tree posts. If you would like to see some previous year lily photos, click here.

Thanks for taking a look!