The flowering dogwood tree gained prestige on March 6, 1918, when it was named the Virginia state flower, redeeming it: first cultivated in the United States in 1731, the dogwood has a shady background.

From deep in a dusty file at the National Arboretum, botanist Roland Jefferson pulls out a folktale or two about cornus florida. Dogwood bark used to be used as a remedy for dog mange; pioneers steeped the bark in whiskey, which they then drank to cure "the shakes"; and some say the tree was originally called daggerwood because its wood is hard enough to be used as a weapon.

The delicate dogwood, with its spring spray of pink or white blossoms, has survived these seedy stories to earn a place in the Japanese sun alongside that country's revered cherry trees. This fall, the National Arboretum launched a seed-exchange program with Japan.

The idea stemmed from a visit Jefferson made to Japan this spring to collect cherry seeds "for continued research of our dwindling cherry-tree selection and for distribution to botanic gardens, arboretums and parks around the country." With the Flower Association of Japan, he worked for five months to bring in a million cherry seeds picked by Japanese schoolchildren, city officials and horticultural groups. The response spurred him to return the favor, with American schoolchildren collecting dogwood seeds for Japan.

Jefferson's goal is to present the Japanese with a million dogwood seeds in November. To date, nearly 200,000 seeds have arrived at the Arboretum in a variety of amounts and packages from Mount Pleasant, New Jersey; Sunrise Beach, Missouri; Cypress, Texas; and Waxhaw, North Carolina, as well as from the White House grounds. First- grade children from the George Mason School in Alexandria sent a hundred seeds in a Mason jar, while Lloyd Wilson, a retired oceanographer from Spotsylvania County, Pennsylvania, picked and hand-counted 31,000 seeds from wild dogwood trees.

With help from area garden-club members, Jefferson is preparing an album for the Flower Association of Japan and would like anyone who sends in seeds to include letters, photos of their outing and the names of those who participated. If a group of schoolchildren gathers seeds, include their grade and the name of their school.