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The Flowering Trees of Spring

March 28, 2010

In our backyard, a weeping cherry tree is in full bloom. Far to the back of our lot, the branches of a weeping willow are bright green. The redbuds are just before bursting into their pinkish purple glory. Dogwood flowers will just be opening by Easter Sunday.

Stepping through our garden gate, we are greeted with an array of blossoms. Purple crocus, delicate grape hyacinths, nodding golden jonquils, spreading white and pink Lenten roses, and the spikes of pale blue scillia compose a companion carpet beneath the flowering trees. Yellow pollen is beginning to cover my truck and the porch furniture. My eyes are itching and my sinuses are congested. Spring has arrived.

The nonstop procession of blossoming trees in springtime is a wonder to behold. Bradford pears, Sergeant crabapples, and Yoshino cherries each take their turn at beautifying the southern landscape. Flowering peach and apple trees across the Upstate promise abundant fruit at roadside stands in the summer months ahead. Some trees, like the sassafras that grows beside our home, have a less conspicuous green flower that adds its own subtle touch of grace to the glory of early spring.

Among the most eagerly awaited blossoms in our yard and throughout the Piedmont are those of the redbuds and the dogwoods. These two trees are closely connected in several ways. The redbuds burst forth into full bloom in March while the dogwoods flower in April. The redbuds are covered with a profusion of purplish pink flowers all along the branches. Heart shaped leaves follow the flowers. Old time herbalists report that the flowers have an agreeable acid taste and can be added to salads or used in the making of pickles. In the good old days, smaller redbud branches were boiled to make a pink dye for homespun yarn.

The dogwood is the most common flowering tree that dapples the woodlands of much of the United States in mid to late spring. It has been described as America’s most beloved flowering tree and has been designated the official tree of several states. Pioneers learned from the Native Americans that dogwood bark could be used to make remedies for various illnesses, including fever and headaches. The roots were boiled to make a scarlet dye.

The redbud and the dogwood have several things in common beyond their herbal use, their usefulness as sources of dye, and their sheer beauty.  They are both small understory trees, that is, they grow beneath the canopy of larger woodland trees. Both are suitable as ornamental trees for home gardens and are generally quite hardy. Each tree will reseed readily, redbuds from distinctive seedpods, and dogwoods from bright red berries. More significant perhaps is that the redbud and the dogwood are connected by folklore.

The legend of the dogwood holds that until the time of the crucifixion of Christ, dogwoods grew to reach the size of mighty oaks. So strong and solid was the wood that it was chosen as the timber for the cross of Jesus. To be used for such a cruel death was distressing to the tree. In compassion, the Creator declared that the tree to which Jesus was nailed would never again have to be used as a cross. From that time forth, the dogwood has been slender, bent, and twisted, not as a punishment but as a blessing. In sympathy to the suffering of Christ, the dogwood bore white blossoms in the shape of a cross, with two long and two short petals. Each petal bears, on its outer edge, the print of a rusty nail. At the center of each flower, red as if stained with blood, is a crown of thorns. The flowers themselves are a reminder to all who believe of the death of Jesus.

Even as the dogwood tree’s blooming coincides with Good Friday, so the redbud tree flowers near the Ides of March, the date that lives in infamy as the day of the betrayal of Julius Caesar by Brutus. The redbud tree represents betrayal, not by Brutus, but by Judas Iscariot. People of the southern Appalachian Mountains have long referred to the redbud as the Judas tree.

An ancient woodcut by the artist Castor Durante depicts the figure of Judas hanging, as an act of suicide, from one of the branches of a redbud, illustrating the legend of the tree. Again the tradition was so distressing that, rather than cursing the redbud as a symbol of betrayal, the Creator blessed the tree with heart-shaped leaves that are in full display by Good Friday. It is a reminder for those who believe that the tragedy of these events so long ago is evidence of the loving heart of God.

When we lived in another city we had become friends with an older couple who were avowed agnostics. They had both a redbud and a dogwood in their yard. They were aware of the legends.

“Should we cut them down because of the legends?” the husband asked rhetorically.

“Absolutely not!” his wife answered. “We’ll keep them because they are beautiful trees.”

And so they are!

For me, these flowering trees of spring are evidence enough of the mystery and the majesty of a divine creative hand.

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2010
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