Note to new readers. I’m pretty lose with my definition of foraging and often include uses for a plant that are not food or medicine. Tonight’s article is no exception.
One of my favorite trees is the Dogwood. Maybe that’s because it’s one of the first trees that I learnedto identify. Maybe it’s the heartwarming bloom that I get to enjoy in the Spring. The interesting texture of the bark, the crooked limbs and the bright red berries all things that I love about it. Aside from the beauty that Dogwood brings into our lives it does have some usefulness. The wood is normally gnarled and twisted making it unsuitable for construction but awesome for novelties. The wood has a reddish hue when treated properly. It’s strong and tight grained and rot resistant. When a Dogwood tree dies in the forest it can remain standing for decades and will be strong enough to make a heavy but strong hiking staff. The rot is usually localized at ground level and the dead tree can easily be felled by simply leaning into it. I have made several walking sticks by pushing over a dead Dogwood that’s only an inch or two think. Before I was allowed to have things like axes I’d wedge the small dead Dogwood between two large trees and be able to break it to the right length by pushing and pulling until it broke in just the right spot.
The wood and bark will yield a purple dye when soaked in water and when working with fresh Dogwood wood this watercolor can be used to stain the wood itself to give you colorful stock to work with. In my experience the bark yields the best color and you might have to boil it down a bit to get a strong tone.
The curing the wood for tool handles and walking sticks is pretty simple. Cut it a little longer than your finished product and coat the ends with wax. Then hang it in a dark but dry place. This technique is pretty much the same for any small stock. The hanging time will vary depending on the thickness of the wood and how dry or damp your local environment is. The slower the wood cures the more stable it will be and that’s why we coat the ends with wax. It only takes a thin coating. I have also made walking sticks with relatively green Dogwood by giving it a couple of coats of polyurethane with no major problems.
Traditionally Dogwood twigs are used to make chewing sticks. Because of the way the fibers are bundled in a green Dogwood twig a natural toothbrush was made by macerating one end until it formed a brush. The origin of this is said to be either slaves or Native Americans but I’ve seen it cited as both. Either way, the trick is still taught in survival schools today.
Now for the berries. The native Dogwood berries are edible but they are drupes. They have a single large seed in the center that’s nearly as large as the berry itself. That means that there’s a lot of seed and very little fruit for the effort it takes to consume them but they are edible. A better option that’s still a Dogwood is the Cornelian Cherry. Cornelian Cherry is native to southern Europe and Southwest Asia but it was brought to North America as an ornamental and has escaped in some places. The berries are large enough to make them worth the effort to eat but you still have watch out the rock hard seed in the center. The texture is kinda like a grape and the flesh of the fruit is sour but tastes pretty good when fully ripe. Traditionally it’s used in making sauces and jams. If you have access to Cornelian Cherry it might be worth an internet search for a recipe. Wikipedia mentions that oranges are used in the preparation. At the time that I had access to Cornelian Cherry I was only interested in the survival food aspects of the berries and never progressed beyond nibbling a handful of the sour fruits but when I became aware of the concept of edible landscapes it was one of the first trees that came to mind.
During the American Civil War a strong tea made from the roots of the flowing Dogwood was used as a quinine substitute for treating malaria. (I’m not a doctor or certified herbalist and cannot endorse the medical value of any plant. Reference to the medicinal qualities of any plant is strictly to further the conversation and spur interest in the subject. Please seek out a professional for any medical conditions.) Peterson’s Field Guide also makes references to members of the Dogwood family as being used for external ulcers and that the berries were soaked in brandy for digestive issues.
Of course with this being posted deep in the fall I should also mention the color of the fall leaves. Each tree is a little different depending on genetics, soil type and lighting conditions but the Dogwood tree out on the edge of the parking lot of my day job has the most beautiful leaves that I have seen. They are almost purple.
So if you’re looking at that bare spot out by the fence and wanting something that will provide both beauty and usefulness you might want to consider a Dogwood tree.
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