"Look over there." David whispers. He wades through the underbrush, careful not to snap twigs or rustle leaves.
The dense understory of salal, Oregon grape, and evergreen huckleberry blocks my view of whatever he has spotted. I tap him lightly on the shoulder then shrug when he turns to look at me. I don't speak for fear of scaring the birds away. He beckons me to follow, then creeps forward, the foliage shushing against his jeans.
The greenery thins and we come to the edge of a manmade pond with a wooden platform and two benches. Surrounding the pool, skunk cabbage, lady fern, and mosses shelter frogs, salamanders, and slugs. At the water's edge a crow drinks avidly, bobbing her head repeatedly for sip after sip. She flies off, but this is still a perfect location to spot birds coming in for a drink. Soft light angles down between the tree-limbs of the surrounding forest. I set up the tripod and attach my longest lens, the 500 mm, then settle in to wait.
Embossed veins on the foliage of all three native Northwest dogwoods make them particularly attractive. Even bunchberry merits close attention.
We've come to Seattle's Washington Park Arboretum early in the morning to photograph birds while searching for Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii), our primary quarry. The famous Olmstead Brothers design firm -- also responsible for Central Park in New York -- laid out these 230 acres along the shores of Lake Washington and just east of downtown Seattle. Harboring some 20,000 plants, this constructed natural habitat serves as a life raft for wildlife and the human spirit.
Looking into the canopy, I spot a huge specimen of our target tree. It stands some sixty feet tall, and is one of three dogwoods native to the northwest U.S. and southwest Canada. The arboretum staff believe the tree grows abundantly throughout the park. But we hiked every trail and found only the hybridized "Eddie's White Wonder," a cross between Cornus nuttallii (Pacific dogwood) and Cornus florida (flowering dogwood).
"I'm surprised they have only one specimen of the native." I click off a few frames to capture the flowers high above us. "I suspect it's because nuttallii is notoriously susceptible to disease and the cultivar may provide hybrid vigor. So it will last a long time." David squints up at my find.
I am surprised to learn that this giant tree is so fragile. This one has clearly been here quite a while, in its preferred habitat and surrounded by other forest titans like Douglas fir, hemlock, and big leaf maple, which provide the shade dogwoods love.
"What a blessing the arboretum is." David squats beside the water scanning for insects and amphibians. "In the midst of this vast urban complex we can intimately connect with nature. Wildlife benefits and so do we."
"Do you think that's why so many people come here?"
"Sure." David trails his fingers through the water. "Look at creation myths, the foundation of culture. They frequently posit the world's beginning in a greenworld context."
"Like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden?"
He nods. "Just one example. Cultural con-nections to the greenworld originated out of necessity. All cultures, world-wide, developed a sophisticated tax-onomy to classify the plants in their environment. They had to. It was a matter of life or death." Sifting through the leaf litter, David unearths a salamander.
"That makes sense. After all, the greenworld was the grocery store, the pharmacy, and the hardware store. People had to know whether a plant was edible, medicinal, poisonous, useful for basketry, fiber, or natural dyes." I take one shot before the salamander slithers off David's palm back into its hidey-hole.
"Exactly. Our dogwood, for example, has been used for arrows, skewers, daggers, and piano keys." David stops abruptly when our crow returns. This time she alights on the dogwood and starts breaking off twigs.
"What is that crazy bird up to?" I try to focus the lens on her antics.
Pacific dogwood's autumn crop of berrylike red fruits often attract native bandtailed pigeons. Relatively common in lowland Western Washington, this bird's population nevertheless seems to be declining.
"Ah. The time of sticks." David grins. "Nest building." He studies the crow through his binoculars. "She's getting a bit carried away, I think."
I look through the viewfinder in time to see the crow break off a sizable stick with flowers still attached. She takes off, struggles along for two, three wing flaps, then drops the stick, where it lands beside the pond. We laugh at her desire to build her dream house.
The leaves still rustle up in the dogwood and I want to see what's lurking up there. "Only a pigeon." I turn away disappointed.
David points. "Not so fast. That's a band-tailed pigeon, not the European rock dove we see in the city streets." I snap a pho-to. "This is way cool. When John James Audubon painted his portrait of this bird he placed it in a Pacific dogwood, because the birds favor the fruits, which will develop by fall." I fire off shot after shot. "Unlike the ubiquitous rock dove, this pigeon's population is in decline. It's wonderful to see it here."
Researching for this expedition, I read that it was Audubon, in fact, who named the tree to honor his friend Thomas Nuttall, the first European scientist to describe it as a new species when he saw it at Fort Vancouver in 1834.
Red osier dogwood, Cornus sericea, a shrubby species to five or six feet tall, lacks showy bracts surrounding the tiny flowers and looks quite different from Pacific dogwood and bunchberry. Nevertheless it is a true dogwood.
The pigeon flies on and I sit back down on the bench to wait for our next urban wildlife encounter. Besides, I want to return to our discussion. "I think we take plants for granted. It's like we treat them as utilitarian objects rather than as living beings."
"I'm afraid that's all too common." David nods. "Most of us are unaware of our deep cultural connections -- psychic, spiritual, and linguistic -- to the greenworld. But even in our culture that unconscious desire for intimacy with nature remains. That's why this place will be packed before the day is over."
As if to prove David's point, a family with three young children arrive. The parents sit on the bench across from us and unpack their picnic. The oldest boy removes a butterfly net from his knapsack and extends its telescoping handle. He asks if we've seen any good bugs and we assure him that we have. His younger sister, of perhaps five or six, walks slowly around the pond, studying the ground. She suddenly squats and stares intently. With great care she picks up the dogwood stick the crow has dropped, and brings it to her mother. Laying it in her mother's hand, she makes a solemn announcement.
"This is the most interesting flower I have ever seen in my whole life."
Pacific dogwood, Cornus nuttallii, sports large flowers, which are actually clusters of small flowers surrounded by six very large showy bracts that look like petals. This species blooms in the spring and sometimes gives an encore in the autumn.
Native range: There are three dogwoods native to the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific dogwood, Cornus nuttallii, is a maritime Northwest native tree whose natural range extends from British Columbia south through Oregon into California on the west side of the Cascade/ Sierra axis. Red osier dogwood, Cornus sericea (formerly known as C. stolonifera), is a shrubby species with bright red twigs that occurs through much of North America. The diminutive bunchberry, Cornus canadensis, occurs from Eastern Asia through the mountainous areas of North America.
Names: The name of the genus, Cornus, was given by Linnaeus. Pacific dogwood was named C. nuttallii by John James Audubon to honor his friend, the botanist Thomas Nuttall. The bunchberry, C. canadensis, tells us the plant was originally described from a specimen that came from Canada. The Pacific dogwood flower is the Provincial flower of British Columbia.
Exposure: All three native Northwest dogwoods appreciate some protection from full sunlight. On shaded sites, Pacific dogwood is a good companion for hemlock, Douglas fir, and Western red cedar. Red osier dogwood prefers the stronger light of forest edges, especially along waterways. The little bunchberry is quite happy in the dim light of the forest floor where it flourishes on nurse logs.
Water: The native dogwoods of the Northwest are well adapted to survive the annual summer drought in their native habitats. In the garden, however, all will appreciate supplemental water in the summertime, particularly red osier dogwood.
Soil: All three species prefer moist but well drained, highly organic, somewhat acid soils.
Temperature: These species are hardy, woody trees and shrubs that will winter over in mild winter climates such as the maritime Northwest.
Size: Pacific dogwood is a tree to sixty feet. Red osier dogwood is a shrub to about six feet, sometimes much taller. Bunchberry plants range in size from four to eight inches tall, spreading wider.
Foliage: Leaves are deciduous and opposite, with attractively incised veins in all three species.
Flowers: The rather inconspicuous flowers are tiny and aggregated into a buttonlike inflorescence. The flowers are about a quarter of an inch in diameter and have four sepals, four petals, and four stamens. Bunchberry and Pacific dogwood both have showy petal-like bracts surrounding the inflorescence making it appear to be a single flower. The inflorescence of Pacific dogwood with its very large bracts is four to six inches in diameter. In bunchberry the inflorescence is an inch and a half in diameter. Red osier dogwood lacks showy bracts.
Fruits: The fruit is berry-like, fleshy, and very attractive to birds, particularly bandtailed pigeons and cedar waxwings. The fruit of Pacific dogwood and bunchberry is bright red. The fruit of red osier dogwood is white.
Propagation: Starting from seed is easy. Keep fresh seed in the refrigerator in damp peat moss for six weeks after removing all the flesh in order to stratify the seeds and improve germination.
Cultivars: Numerous named cultivars of all three species are available in the nursery trade.
Pests and Diseases: If your soil is not well drained, plant Pacific dogwood in raised beds in order to avoid root rot or other fungal infections. Protect it from damage to the trunk at ground level by lawnmowers or weed-eaters. It is subject to fungal diseases that will kill the tree. Red osier dogwood is quite happy on wet sites and will be healthy there. Bunchberry is healthiest on decomposed logs or soil supplemented with fine bark.
Garden uses: Pacific dogwood is a beautiful tree in foliage and in bloom. Grow it in partial shade with conifers like hemlock. Red osier dogwood is extremely useful on wetter sites and is much appreciated in winter for its cheery color. Bunchberry makes an extremely attractive groundcover for a woodland garden in the shade when in flower or in fruit, and even for the foliage alone. For more information: email: plantdoc@ cablespeed.com, and see these web sites: http://depts.washington.edu/wpa or http:// depts.washington.edu/urbhort