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The Pacific Dogwood

By Terry Grillo

The bright petals are called bracts and surround the flowers – the clump of woody material at the center. Pacific dogwood is lighting up the canyons and draws now, in a brilliant display.

Photo by: Terry Grillo

They´re lighting up the canyons and draws now, brilliant white splashes on deep green leaves hidden in the most unexpected places. The Pacific dogwood (cornus nuttalii) is not a prolific tree, but when it blooms in the spring – and sometimes in the fall – it´s hard to miss.

According to several scientific reports, cornus nuttalii grows in the Sierra above 6,000 feet. There are several fine examples in Amador County just above 2,000 feet, but maybe we should keep that to ourselves.

Contrary to first impressions, what appears to be a single dogwood flower, actually contains a cluster of 30 to 40 tiny greenish-white flowers. The large white or pinkish-white structures commonly mistaken for petals are actually called bracts. These bracts are not only responsible for the tree´s brilliant display, but also protect the small delicate flowers.

When not in bloom, Pacific dogwood can be easily identified by its distinctive leaves. The 3- to 5-inch leaves are born in pairs on the twig, and are characterized by arching veins, which follow the natural curvature of the leaf.

The tree can be identified by thin branches that curve upward, as well as by its irregular growth form. Pacific dogwood typically grows to only 20 or 30 feet either individually or in small bunches.

By September, Pacific dogwood makes its second display of brilliant color for the year. Although bitter to human taste, the bright red berries of the tree are a favored food for many birds as they begin their migration south.

It is unknown where the name dogwood originated, but some believe it is because the berries were unfit for a dog to eat. Another theory is that the name developed from the word dag (the root of dagger), because the wood of the tree was historically used to make skewers for butchers.

In autumn, the leaves of Pacific dogwood turn brilliant red or reddish purple and add a splash of color to the forest understory.

Reprinted with permission from TheAmador Ledger Dispatch