Flower Parts Part 2: Our State Flower

Whereas, the Dogwood is a radiantly beautiful flower which grows abundantly in all parts of the State; and

Whereas, there is a great demand from all parts of the State that this Legislature adopt an official flower; Now, therefore,

The General Assembly of North Carolina do enact:

That the Dogwood be, and it is hereby, adopted as the official flower of the State of North Carolina.

In the General Assembly read three times and ratified, this the 15th day of March, 1941.

~H.B. 609, 1941

Most people are familiar with the flowering dogwood tree. Not only does it grow fairly abundantly in the wild, but it’s also frequently used in landscaping because of its beautiful white springtime blooms. It’s our state flower here in North Carolina, and also in Virginia (where it is both the state flower and the state tree). It’s the state tree in Missouri and the state memorial tree in New Jersey as well. While Virginia, Missouri, and New Jersey all specify that they’re referring to the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), North Carolina does not. But reading the declaration by the General Assembly, I’m going to go out on a limb (pun intended) and assume they meant the flowering dogwood, too.

Though I’m a proud transplanted North Carolinian, I must say that I think Missouri and New Jersey did a better job when they selected the tree rather than the flower for their state symbol. Because this is our state flower:

picture of dogwood floret

Dogwood flower

Yup, that’s it. Not only is it kind of unremarkable, but it’s only about 1/4″ long. Unless you’re a nature nerd, you might have been expecting to see a picture like this:

dogwood blossom

Flowering dogwood blossom

Because I am a nature nerd, I have heard many times that the white “petals” on a dogwood are not really petals; they are actually bracts. Back to everyone’s favorite Plant Identification Terminolog: An Illustrated Guide by Harris and Harris, a bract is “a reduced leaf or leaflike structure at the base of a flower or inflorescence.” Hmmm… those don’t look like leaves to me! But if you take a closer look at the center of the bloom, and refer back to my previous post about parts of a flower, you begin to see why.

close up of center of dogwood blossom

As we get closer, you begin to see the details of the real dogwood flowers.

The dogwood does not have a simple flower. Instead, it has a cluster of tiny flowers (florets) in the center of the inflorescence.

closer look at dogwood flowers

An even closer look at the dogwood flowers.

You can see in this image how some of the flowers are open, and others (notably the three right in front) are not yet open. Given my recent fascination with the parts of a flower, I couldn’t resist dissecting this flower to look more closely at it!

cutaway side view of dogwood blossom

Cutaway of the dogwood blossom with 2 bracts and a few of the outer flower removed.

In the cross-section view, you can really begin to see the individual dogwood flowers. And on the flowers that I removed from the blossom, you can trace the development of the flowers as they open, and start noticing the flower parts.

four dogwood florets from unopened to fully opened

Development of dogwood flowers. In the first two flowers pictured, the petals have not yet opened.

The petals curve back as they open, revealing 4 stamens and a greenish pistil in the center. But as I mentioned in my earlier flower parts post, I really enjoy the challenge of finding the sepals…

close up of unopened dogwood flower

Super close-up of unopened dogwood flower

Getting even closer, you can see the downy green lip surrounding the unopened petals; I assume these are the sepals. I was very excited to notice this detail! (Yes, I am a nerd.)

super close up of dogwood flower, same picture as at start of post

Dogwood flower – the official state flower of North Carolina!

Here we are, back where we started: an open dogwood flower. Getting this close allows you to see the four pollen-producing stamen surrounding the pistil. It even looks like this flower has been pollinated as it appears there is some pollen on the stigma (though I’d say there’s a decent chance I accidentally pollinated it while manipulating the flowers).

So there you have it – North Carolina’s state flower!

22 thoughts on “Flower Parts Part 2: Our State Flower

  1. Since it’s Palm Sunday, it seems the appropriate time of year to share what I was told as a child about the dogwood. The cross Jesus was hung on was made of dogwood, the middle flowers represent the crown of thorns he was forced to wear and the indentations in the four petals represent the nails used to hold him onto the cross. As I write this at the beginning of Holy Week for Christians, it makes me realize how much I miss the fellowship of my church congregation.

  2. Thank you so much, Melissa. I’m no plant nerd, but I do love the native forests of Redbud, and I found your examination of the dogwood to be absolutely fascinating!

    Slightly off topic, but do you or Mike have any info on the “blight” that I have heard is afflicting NC dogwoods (and other areas?). We have taken a huge hit on the dogwoods around our house and lot despite my attempts to nurture them.

    • Hey Rich,
      The blight is called anthracnose and is caused by a fungus. Some research has shown (and Mike and I have noticed) that it seems to affect trees in shadier and/or wetter areas more, so within our woods, we have lost many/most in the forest, while those on the edge that receive more sunlight are doing better. I saw one reference that suggested its not quite as much of a problem now as it once was… but it certainly has had an effect!

  3. Melissa, thank you for these posts. In my BIO 112 class we are getting ready to discuss angiosperms this week (including parts of a flower), and, with your permission, I’d like to include your post on our Moodle site. Dogwoods are just starting to bloom here.

    Thanks again! Jessica Howells


    • Hi Jessica,
      Yes! you can definitely use these posts in your class. Also, if you send me an email I’d be happy to give you access to my Google Classroom for the Museum – I have a video that includes all of this info, as well as a could outdoor nature journaling activities that might be fun assignments for your students. My email is melissa (dot) dowland (at) naturalsciences (dot) org.

  4. They are like white or pink California poppies on a tree! They have four petals too. When I was a kid, I wanted to grow them, but they are not very happy in the chaparral climate of the Santa Clara Valley. Now I work with a few impressively big specimens, just a few miles to the south. The climate is very different.

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