by Roger Klinger
Back in the 1980s, the blight on the American Dogwood had taken hold and was spreading fast, and most of the predictions for the dogwood’s survival were dire. I was saddened, as dogwoods were one of my favorite native trees and were such an integral part of my mountain memories, and it was hard to imagine their disappearance. We had already lost a number of trees on our land but many remained, so there was still hope, but it wasn’t looking good from all the reports. One day, I was at a friend’s house and noticed a strange-looking dogwood tree covered with cascading flowers that seemed to grow in waves.
A landscaper friend said that it was called a Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) and that these unusual trees were the “disease-resistant replacement dogwood.” I had the hardest time thinking of this tree as a substitute for the dogwoods I had known all my life. Okay, I could admit that the flowers were dogwood-like in their form and nature and that they were pretty, but it was such a different tree; they bloom about a month later and the blossoms were very dense and heavy, lacking the ballet-like beauty of the trees I had grown up with. Cornus means “horn,” as in a wind instrument or the quality of hardness. The name dogwood is from the Middle English word dag, from which we also get the word dagger, and indeed dogwood is known to make stiff skewers.
It took me many years to simply accept the Kousa on its own terms and see its beauty for what it is, a unique and beautiful variety of dogwood. Fortunately, the American dogwood held on and seems to be surviving, and now there are two beautiful trees in the landscape of my life.
Then something special happened. It was early autumn and I saw a tree outside my dentist’s office, covered in unusual, cosmic, strawberry-colored fruits; I thought it was one of the wildest, most unusual trees I had ever seen in my life. The berries looked like they were from a Disney outer space movie, with hundreds of these unusual bright raspberry-red dangling berries that looked like some kind of tropical Lychee nut, only the tree was in the Shenandoah Valley. I was amazed to realize that this was a Kousa dogwood! Kousas are native to Southeast Asia and are prized in Korea both for their ornamental beauty and their sweet edible fruits.
When ripe, these fruits contain a sweet plum/persimmon-like pudding, and you can pop them in your mouth, squeeze out the delicious paste onto your tongue and discard the tougher outer rind, which is mildly bitter and grainy in texture. They are delicious and fun to eat. I always eat them raw, but some folks do make jams out of them.
The Kousa grows to 15-20 feet, has flaky bark, and long-lasting white flower bracts, which usually come out about a month later than the American dogwood (Cornus florida). Its flowers are abundant and there are many varieties, some pink and red. In autumn the leaves turn bronze before dropping. The Kousa is resistant to Dogwood Anthracnose, a fungal disease that has been infecting flowering dogwoods in eastern North America, so it has become widespread and prized in landscapes across North America.
The bark can be boiled to make a black dye, the leaves can be dried and smoked, the wood can be used for bow and arrow material, and a decoction of the bark works as a laxative. The abundant fruits show promise for having anti-tumor qualities, so these trees may be of future benefit in cancer research. All I know is that they are a fun, delicious autumn treat, they produce abundant fruits, and no critters seem to touch them!
A Dogwood Epiphany
A few weeks ago, I spent the week in Hickory as my brother was in the ICU in critical condition. Later in the week, I had a stress meltdown day and was exhausted; it was hot outside and I was walking down the sidewalk in the town, hauling my carry-on suitcase, eating a sandwich and making necessary phone calls, when my foot hit some sort of slimy, gooey mess on the sidewalk. I cussed, thinking at first it was fresh dog doo, only to realize to my surprise that it was hundreds of Kousa dogwood fruits, and that delighted me beyond belief. After I hung up the phone, I began scooping up and eating the sweet, delicious ripe fruits. It was such a good feeling; their flavor was intense, like really good candy, and I realized everything was okay. A taste of the wild even in the city reawakened my soul and helped me remember the rest of my life!
Since then, I have made several pilgrimages to the spots in town filled with Kousas, and right now the fruits are ripe for the picking. We will be planting several of these lovely trees on our property so we can enjoy their beauty and, each autumn, have a taste of their wild, unusual sweet fruits.
Contact Roger at firstname.lastname@example.org.