The state — excuse me, Commonwealth — of Virginia named the American dogwood as its state flower way back in 1918. It was 23 more years, until 1941, before the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation doing the same thing for us down here in the vale of humility (see “Commonwealth,” above). Then, in 1956, those Virginians chose the dogwood as their state tree, too. Either this represents an extreme case of under-creativity and/or laziness, or an extreme case of one-upmanship. (Because you know what? The cardinal is their state bird, too.)
I’m not a competitive person. Really. But North Carolina, by golly, is the dogwood. Never mind that the word “dogwood” didn’t come into use until 1617; I’ll paraphrase a line from Shakespeare’s Henry V and say of the dogwood, We are it and it is us. King Henry was talking about France, but, in terms of identity, the dogwood is on par.
By third grade, every North Carolina schoolchild knows about, and can recognize, a dogwood bloom. By fourth grade, they’ve probably heard the legend that the cross Christ carried and was crucified on is thought to have been built of dogwood, indicated by the tree’s blooms: The four white petals are cross-shaped, each bearing a rusty indentation, as of a nail.
By fifth grade, they know, unless they have a woolly worm as a class pet, that the way to predict the harshness of the coming winter is by the abundance of a dogwood’s red berries in the fall. And by the sixth grade, they know that those four petals aren’t petals at all, but “bracts,” or modified leaves.
In North Carolina, the white dogwood flower isn’t merely a harbinger, or a representative, of spring. For us, dogwoods are spring. They’re the season itself, easily beating out azaleas. When my children were babies, I’d take walks on sidewalks so thickly strewn with white dogwood petals that the stroller wheels would veer off the sides of the camouflaged concrete squares, a petaled path from a fairy tale. Dogwood knows no favored region here, but surely they’re at their enchanting best in the Sandhills, thanks to the native flora. My husband’s grandmother’s house in Fayetteville was surrounded by lofty, nearly limbless pines. But the cluster of humble dogwoods beneath, scarcely noticeable in their spindly, stunted smallness compared to their towering, top-heavy neighbors, claimed first in show every spring. Gazing spellbound from the street, I understood what a “glade” truly was: this delicate, airy paleness, a thousand creamy pinpoints against a rusty blanket of fallen needles, within a canopy of deep, somehow protective, pine tree shade.
And here is where I prove that I’m truly not competitive. Because as much as I love that classic white; as often as I thrill at coming upon a lone, white, volunteer dogwood bravely blooming mere feet from an interstate; as deeply as I inhale when driving on streets that glow ethereally in a spring dusk thanks to dogwood blossoms on candelabralike branches, I love pink dogwoods the best. That’s right: the less-seen, less-loved, slightly sissified version of our state flower. Go ahead: Tar, feather, and tell me I throw — and think — like a girl, but I won’t be swayed. Someone has to take up for the underdog.
Of the seven dogwoods in my yard, one is a volunteer and two came with the house, all of them obligingly white. I planted four more, and they’re purposely pink. My mother shuddered vaguely. I believe she said “Pink?” (which perhaps came out “Pank?” to underscore her undisguised disdain). I planted the four trees practically in a row, which is also a landscaping no-no. But every spring, I look out the window to a milkshake froth of pink blossoms that cheers me in ways no mere white ever will. Pink is approachable, not noble. In a spring filled with other kinds of early whites — snowdrops, Bradford pear, mock orange — it’s refreshing. A dogwood’s pink isn’t “shocking” or “hot”; it’s not a jarring fuchsia. Instead, it’s soft, charming, subtle. A dogwood pink is a pale, pastel, pretty pink.
Besides, it’s also alliterative.
Of course, the white dogwood blossom is lovely, and beloved, but it’s also conventional and expected, something one fears growing inured to. A pink dogwood is spaghetti on Christmas Eve, a mailbox made from a johnboat motor, a tap dancer at a shag fest. Look for it this spring, that small delight trying harder to be noticed. Waiting to be the bride instead of the bridesmaid, waiting to lose that addendum, “occasionally pink,” from the description of our state symbol. Waiting, patiently and pinkly, for its turn in the seasonal spotlight.