Cold, only a thin crusty snow to walk on, I travel deep into the woods on this February day. As I hike up a steep hill my mind wanders in a different direction. I’m thinking about how fragile our planet is. Our natural world is a completely interdependent system where geology, plants, animals, water, and atmosphere create the perfect balance. This mild winter sends chills down my spine. Perhaps it has nothing to do with climate change. Perhaps it does. I don’t know for sure but I can’t help wondering. My mind is lost deeply in thought and I see that I have wandered into an area that is a depression between two bedrock features. The extruded bedrock provides the forest with a mega feature that speaks to my sense of aesthetics. Trees grow on both bedrock outcrops and cast shadows on the forest floor below. Filtered sunlight finds its way through the overhead branches. There are a few, almost indistinguishable, shrubs that seem to blend into the forest background. It takes me a few moments to recognize these shrubs, devoid of leaves on this winter day. I smile when it occurs to me what these are. Shrubs can be difficult to recognize without their leaves. And this shrub, which defies typical identification characteristics for its genus, can be particularly tricky to name.
Beneath the overhead canopy of branches that hover over plants that grow out of the forests’ humus there are shrubs and saplings that fill a unique niche in the woodland ecosystem. Perhaps one of the more uncommon shrubs that enjoys filtered sunlight and cool shade is the pagoda dogwood. This member of the Cornus genus thrives in the darkened corners of our northern temperate hardwood forests. It is inconspicuous to the eye but serves as a very valuable member of the forest community. It plays a small yet essential part in the play that we refer to as an ecosystem.
It seems that the pagoda dogwood would like to go unnoticed. It leads a quiet life within the shadows of the great trees that tower overhead. It survives where others cannot. And yet the pagoda dogwood fills a gap in the forest. It compliments an ecosystem by anchoring the soil, providing valuable forage for birds and mammals, and important nesting sites for forest avian species.
The pagoda dogwood is also known as alternate leaf dogwood in some circles. Most dogwoods have opposite branching patterns. This Cornus species defies the norm and has an alternate branching pattern. The scientific name is therefore Cornus alternifolia; an apt name for this botanical rebel.
The Cornus genus is quite diverse ranging radically in both size and habitat requirements. The small bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is essentially a trailing woody stem vine that is found along the edges of wetlands and within wetlands, especially in our northern boreal forests. The red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea or Cornus stolinifera depending on which taxonomic reference one is using) is a large shrub with fiery red twigs that inhabit wet fields and open wetlands. This shrub grows in dense thickets and enjoys bright sun, wet soil, and provides abundant forage. Perhaps the best know Cornus is flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). This dogwood is a full size tree that loves to hang its spreading branches over cool rocky streams. When in full bloom it is a site to behold; a mass of whitish pink flowers that attracts attention from bees and humans alike. The Cornus species in general have leaves that are simple and without toothed margins. The leaves veins originate from a center line, are parallel, and curve as they approach the edge of the leaf. The flowers of dogwoods are comprised of four parts. The flowers can range from tight clusters to open clusters. The fruits are known as drupes, a fleshy covering over a pit or seeds, and these contain one or two seeds. The drupes in many of the Cornus species are highly edible and nutritious forage by a large contingent of birds and mammals.
The pagoda dogwood seems to be the covert cousin found within the Cornus genus. It has a brown bark that can be mottled, almost camouflaged with various shades of tans, grays, and browns. It’s wide spreading branches stacked in parallel patterns resemble the pagoda structures of the far east. This branching pattern is designed by nature to take advantage of the filtered sunlight that squeezes between overhead branches and leaves. The filtered sunlight provides just enough energy from photosynthesis to help the tree survive this shadowy environment.
One of the distinct features that these large shrubs provide for the forest is perching habitat for birds in forests dominated by tall trees. Low to mid height perching habitat is difficult to find in mature forests. This shrub, along with a few others that can tolerate low light conditions, provide escape habitat and perching habitat for small song birds within the dense leaf canopy overhead. The pagoda dogwood also provides some fruit forage, complimenting some of the understory ground species such as partridge berry and wintergreen.
I have always loved the notion of Gestalt, a term used to indicate that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. In the world of ecology this certainly can apply to ecosystems. All of the different components of an ecosystem, many of which are interdependent and often symbiotic, perform together for a purpose beyond our comprehension. Some would say that it is a system that has evolved in order to ensure survival. It is more than that. These ecosystems have evolved, miraculously, to be part of and essential to our planet. Every single element, living and nonliving, is critical to our planets health. The intricate and complicated systems that have evolved contribute to a necessary balance. A fulcrum between our planet as a living entity or our planet as a nonliving rock orbiting around a medium sized star located within a small galaxy.
I hold the branch of the pagoda dogwood in my hand. It speaks of life and is a critical part of this forest. As I grasp this branch and consider its wonders my mind wanders again. I think of a character actor in a play. The part may go unnoticed but is essential to the ambiance, composition, and message that was written by the playwright. I think of the backup singers so often found in soul music. Their harmony provides the backdrop for a great performance. Without them the song is incomplete. I think of people like myself, ordinary and having no outstanding characteristics, that live, work, and participate in our democracy. Without each one of us democratic government cannot exist. And I think of those who go unnoticed in human culture. Those who may have less, those who may be challenged mentally or physically, and those who may be alone without family or friend. They may be forgotten but are still an important part of the fabric we call community.
This pagoda dogwood. It plays a small yet vital part within our forest ecosystem. A community of sorts for sure. Could the forest go on without it? Most certainly. But there would be a void, at least for a while. And the balance of the forest resting vicariously on a narrow fulcrum would tilt, just a little bit, away from a living planet and towards a cold, quiet rock circling a star, located in a small galaxy, found in the corner of a vast and nearly boundless universe.
I shudder at the thought.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in February of 2012.