Tilting At Windmills: The Legend Of The Dogwood Tree
Published: March 17th, 2023
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: The Legend of the Dogwood Tree

Over time, questions have arisen among local historians about where the so-called “Susquehanna Artist” had been living when the President of the Universe granted his request. But after his painting, now known as “Flowering Dogwood,” was discovered behind a false wall in a Colonial-era farmhouse, all speculation ceased.

The canvas was, of course, subjected to scrutiny. To authenticate its date, tiny flecks of paint were removed for chemical and infrared analysis. Resulting reports concluded that “Flowering Dogwood” was painted in the early 1800s. However, nothing of the artist’s identity and/or background was discovered.

Ian McDermott, a horticultural historian, was drawn into the inquiry when he saw a reproduction of the painting on a postcard at the Susquehanna Valley Visitors Center. He researched the origin of the tree, consulted with gardeners and geneticists, and ultimately wrote a paper published in Botanical Monthly Magazine suggesting that prior to 1820, the dogwood did not exist.

The article caused quite a stir for a month or two, after which speculation about both the tree and the artist who had so beautifully depicted it, receded and people went on to talk about other things.

Of course, as often happens when an individual or an object is the focus of media hype, just about everything that everyone theorized was wrong.

Among the facts never known was the name of the artist: Levi Foulke.

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Levi was born in Afton, New York, where he died in 1836 after a short illness. Mr. Foulke considered himself to be a farmer who painted rather than a painter who farmed, even though he made more money selling portraits and landscapes than he ever did growing wheat.

Unlike his fellow agriculturalists, whose crops consisted solely of vegetation that could be eaten, woven, traded, or sold, Levi loved flowers. From spring to fall, the garden surrounding his house overflowed with columbine, butterfly weed, wild indigo, aster, coreopsis, geranium, gay feather, sneezeweed, and phlox. And in the studio where he painted – he lived for color – his days were filled with blue, purple, orange, yellow, pink, and red pigments, as well as every imaginable shade of green.

But from October to March, his world was monochromatic.

The grass turned brown. Stubs of wheat and stalks of harvested corns were brown. The house’s siding was brown, as were the barn and the snow after a day or two on the ground. The silo was gray, the stone walls were gray, the split rail fence was gray, and so, too often, were the sky and his spirits.

Levi Foulke had been able to survive winter in reasonably good spirits when his wife was alive. After she died, though, he positively hungered for color.

He did not pray, because he was not a religious man. But often in late December, January, or February, when the bleakness of the landscape overwhelmed him, he would step outside, stare up at the sky, and beg, “Color. Please. Give me color!”

Now, the President of the Universe was not a god. If he had been, all of the world’s ills, including war, slavery, disease, and starvation would long ago have ceased to exist. But he did have certain powers over nature, and on rare occasions, if the individual making the plea interested him, he would make things happen.

Not always, of course.

A young athlete had asked the President of the Universe to change his toe-count from ten to twelve because a sixth toe on each foot, he felt, would give him extra traction to win a race.


An extremely bad poet who called herself a witch demanded (demanded!) that the President of the Universe make her volume of self-published, self-pitying poems into a best seller.

Also declined.

But when a girl named Emily with one emerald green eye and one cornflower blue eye, shunned by her schoolmates as a freak, humbly suggested that if the President of the Universe wasn’t too busy, he might find her someone to love, he did exactly that.

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In part because he thought Emily was charming and worthy.

In part because anything that had anything to do with color appealed to him.

In his younger days, the President of the Universe had added oomph to autumn, ink to octopi, yellow to canaries, orange to pumpkins (they used to be all white), and blue to the bluebird of happiness, who had begun its career as black as a raven.

So on that drab December day, from the swivel chair behind his desk in the sky, the President of the Universe studied Levi Foulke’s farm. He noted desolate fields, dirty snow, gray walls, a brown house, a brown barn, and a bleak horizon.

He thought, “I can fix this.”

And he did.

The next morning, a plant pushed through the frozen ground in the garden beside Levi’s front door.

Contrary to nature (the temperature was 15° Fahrenheit), it grew taller and wider each day, sprouting glossy green leaves on elegant, multi-layered branches.

After a week, it was six feet tall.

After two weeks, buds shaped like little onions started to sprout on prettily ringed stems.

And after one week more, the onion-shaped buds burst into bright pink flowers as flamboyant against the snow as flamingo feathers, and the blooms exploding from the tree emitted a smell as sweet as honeysuckle.

As the spring progressed to summer, bright red berries nestled showily among a background of lush leaves. And in autumn, the leaves turned an irresistible. wine purple shade of red.

Kingdom: Plant

Family: Cornaceae (Dogwood)

Popular Description: Majestic Ornamental

Common name: Flowering Dogwood

Since that long ago, mind-numbing and soul-smothering December, when the President of the Universe looked down from his office in the sky and saw Levi Foulke looking back up at him with eyes desperate for color, the dogwood has thrived and flourished.

To this very day, it continues to dazzle us with its pink petals and to remind us that soon, it will be spring.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com