This afternoon, as we took a windy walk, we passed a dogwood tree in full bloom and I asked my daughter if she knew the legend of the dogwood at Easter. I hope the owner of the tree doesn’t mind, because I took a flower home for Good Friday. Then I started researching the legend of the Easter dogwood and learned that I had it all wrong.

Dogwood for the Easter legend (photo by Kate Dolan)
The four petals of the dogwood bloom are said to resemble a cross, and the cluster in the center reminds people of the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’s head. Most remarkable to me, however, are the red indentations on the end of each petal which symbolize the nail marks of the crucifixion.

According to the story, the dogwood used to be a mighty tree, stronger and taller than the oak. The wood from the tree was prized for building, and so it was used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified. However, this use did not make either the tree or God very happy (depending on which version of the story you hear).

Some say God acted in response to the tree’s sorrow, while others say God was exercising some righteous wrath. Regardless of the reason, God changed the size and shape of the dogwood, making the branches slender, crooked, and fragile, so that the wood from the tree could never again be used to crucify. While the Lord took away the tree’s strength, He added beautiful blossoms every Easter to remind us of the sacrifice made on our behalf.

It’s a sweet story, even if it is wrong.

To start with, the white dogwood “petals” are not actually petals at all, but a type of leaf known as bracts. Instead, the dogwood flowers are the tiny yellow-green stalks that make up the cluster in the center. This means that the dogwood “blossom” that I took from the tree is actually about 20 flowers – so I owe the owner 19 additional apologies for picking flowers without permission.

Additionally, since there is no evidence that dogwoods have ever been native to the Holy Land, it’s almost certain that the wood of this tree was not used to fashion the cross. The legend of the dogwood is not only wrong, it’s not even old. The story probably goes back not much more than 100 years.

However, despite the flaws in the tale, the dogwood can still serve as a beautiful symbol of God’s sacrifice for us on Good Friday. The concept of sacrifice is pretty alien to our culture, so I think it’s hard for many of us to understand how giving up or destroying something can make up for shortcomings elsewhere. It doesn’t make any sense that our sins can be washed away by the death of Jesus. But today we should make an effort to appreciate the value of that sacrifice, even if we don’t fully understand it. God gave us the dogwood, and we can use that as a reminder.

Best wishes for a blessed Easter!