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Dogwoods in Danger

From "The Ozarks Herbalist" column,
in The Ozarks Mountaineer magazine
Copyright© Jim Long 2007

Dogwoods in Danger

Over the past quarter century I’ve watched as people discover our Ozarks and move here to retire. Land has been cheap, taxes low, cost of living less than just about anywhere in the U.S. More often than not, the folks who move here from farther north buy a piece of land without paying much attention to it, possibly only viewing it from their car, or maybe walking a few feet on the land and seeing it as just “brush” to be disposed of.

Their first act generally is to hire a bulldozer and “clear” the land to make room for their retirement home. Seldom do these folks recognize that what they’ve bought is a piece of forest that has an ecosystem, a balance of plants and animals that depend upon each other for their survival.

Not just deer, rabbits and squirrels inhabit the property, but lizards, turtles, butterflies, moths, chipmunks, occasionally even bears and foxes may depend on that piece of real estate for their lives.

Why would it matter, you may wonder? Can’t those animals just move on down the road and find another place to live? In the past, they had to, and did. But eventually, as the Ozarks forests become cattle pasture and housing developments, wildlife will run out of somewhere to run to.

Many animals are territorial and must have space of their own, or they die, because their neighbors won’t tolerate too many of their kind in one area. Some, like the indigenous box turtle, return to the same spot where they were born, to lay their eggs each year.

A female box turtle has been returning to my garden each year for the past twenty years to lay her eggs in the same 3 x 5 foot raised bed in my garden. I see her every fall, laying eggs, and every spring, I watch the tiny quarter-sized baby turtles as they tumble out of the raised bed and try to find their way in the world. What happens to those turtles if you bulldoze their nursery? Since box turtles are said to mate for life, and are very territorial, they have to fight other turtles for a new place to exist.

But even more than the animals, it’s actually the dogwood, our Missouri state tree, that I am most concerned most about. They are on the decline all across the Ozarks region.

My parents and I used to drive from central Missouri down to the Ozarks nearly every spring, to see the dogwoods when they were in bloom. They were everywhere, making the understory of the forests come alive with the billions of blossoms. People would line the roads, taking photos, artists painting, people gawking at the billowing white petals of our State tree.

Churche congregations are often as guilty as developers at how they treat the land. They buy a piece of land for building a church to worship and what is the first thing they do? They bulldoze the land, clear it, so they can put up a building. Do they plant back native plants, the very plants the Creator put there? I’ve never, ever seen a congretation that did that. Instead, they plant a few Japanese yews, or some Chinese junipers and call it landscaping. These nonnative plants require maintenance, watering, mulching. You would think that church congregations, of all people on earth, would honor the environment that God created and want native plants, the ones that don’t require artificial fertilizers and maintenance to survive. Sadly, though, natural beauty, the very thing that brings people to our land, isn’t in fashion any longer.

I publish an estimate in my newspaper column each year of the number of dogwoods across the Ozarks that I believe have been destroyed by development. Not that anyone actually sets out to destroy dogwoods intentionally. Instead, developers want to clear the land of trees so they can build as many houses on the land as possible and the easiest way to do that is just bulldoze everything that’s there. My estimates are just a guess, nothing scientific, but so far no one has proven me wrong. This past year, my estimate is that 250,000 dogwood trees have been destroyed by development across the Ozarks. This includes smaller and larger dogwood trees, those that would have bloomed this spring, and those that aren’t big enough to bloom until next year. (Many friends tell me my estimates are way too low).

How many dogwood trees are planted back? Not many. Some go into yards here and there. The Conservation Department furnishes bundles of dogwood trees at very little cost for wildlife conservation, but by and large, dogwood trees are disappearing faster than they can be planted back. In a decade, the only dogwoods you will see blooming in the spring will be the ones scattered about lawns in cities and whatever is left in the deepest parts of the National Forests after logging has been completed.

Dogwoods are easy to grow. They do best in partial shade, although they will survive in full sun but will suffer occasional sun scalding of the leaves in full sunlight. By their nature they are understory trees, found beneath taller forest trees, so they do well at the edges of timber and beneath taller trees.

Dogwoods set their buds the year before and ice and cold do not harm the dogwood buds. Even covered with ice crystals, the charming white blossom sleeps inside. When the weather begins to warm in March, the buds grow and begin to open and by April, the tree will be in full bloom.
Dogwood trees are hardy, easy to grow, require virtually no care and will bloom in about three to four years after planting. (To speed up blooming, you can dig in two cups of high nitrogen fertilizer or good organic compost around the roots in mid summer).

When you do plant dogwoods, the one thing you should absolutely do is protect the trunk of the tree. The fastest way to kill a dogwood is to ding it with the lawnmower, or gouge it’s trunk with the weed eater. That small act of damaging the bark of the trunk, allows a tree borer to enter. Once that happens, the borer sets to work drilling holes and within a year or two, the tree is dead. The simple act of mulching or putting a protective border around your tree to keep the lawnmower and weed eater away, will keep away damage from the trunk and your tree will live for decades.

And in return for you simple efforts, you will be gifted with a mass of blooming year after year that few other trees in the forest can match.

As our Ozarks dogwoods decline year in and year out, it’s important to replace them at every opportunity. Please, won’t you plant some dogwood trees this spring?

Jim Long

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