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A Tale of Two Trees

April 4, 2011

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 promise abundant fruit at roadside stands throughout the Upstate come summer. Some trees, like sassafras, 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 are those of the redbud trees and several varieties of dogwoods. The redbuds burst forth into full bloom in mid-March while the dogwoods flower in mid-April. The redbuds are covered with a profusion of purplish pink flowers all along the branches. Heart-shaped leaves follow the flowers.

The dogwood is the common flowering tree that dapples the woodlands of much of the United States in mid to late spring. Described as America’s most beloved flowering tree, the dogwood has been designated the state tree of Virginia and Missouri.

The two trees are connected in Southern folklore.

The legend of the dogwood contends that dogwoods grew to reach the size of mighty oaks up until the time of the crucifixion of Christ. The lumber of the dogwood was so strong that it was chosen as the timber for the cross of Jesus. To be used for such a cruel death was an insult to the tree. 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 the print of a rusty nail on the edge. At the center of each flower appears a red crown of thorns. The flowers are symbols of the death of Jesus.

Even as the dogwood tree’s blooming usually 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 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 only a symbol of betrayal, the Creator blessed the tree with heart-shaped leaves that are in full display by Good Friday. The leaves are said to be a symbol of the loving heart of God.

The two beautiful flowering trees are a reminder of the passion of Christ during the season of Lent.

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2011
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