New guide points out our native shrubs, trees

mock-orange Philadelphus lewisii

Lewis’s mock-orange Philadelphus lewisii. Pacific Northwest Native Americans used the strong woody branches for root-digging and arrow shafts. The leaves and flowers were used as soap: first bruised and then rubbed with the hands to make a lather. The scientific name honors Merriweather Lewis, who described it in his journal while camped in Montana´s Bitterroot Valley.

June in the Wenatchee Valley is peak bloom time for many native shrubs that form dense thickets in foothill ravines and alongside streams. Have you caught a whiff of sweet citrus perfume wafting from Lewis’s mock-orange? Or, been reminded of crashing ocean waves by the frothy sea-foam flower head of oceanspray? Have you cracked a smile at the over-sized flat-topped white mass of flowers on the gangly blue elderberry?

Despite their large size and abundance, most of us don’t really notice shrubs except during the short time when they are in bloom. Frankly, it is often hard to tell if a particular plant is a shrub or a tree. Until this month, there hasn’t been a suitable photo field guide that is comprehensive, yet doesn’t get bogged down with technical vocabulary. Photographer Mark Turner and Plant Ecologist Ellen Kuhlmann have filled this gap by artfully creating a photo field guide, Trees and Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest. With its wide geographic scope including parts of Canada and California, it is a single comprehensive volume to pack along when traveling throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“Trees and Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest” by Mark Turner and Ellen Kuhlmann.

“Trees and Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest” by Mark Turner and Ellen Kuhlmann.

This new book includes 680 species of trees, shrubs, sub-shrubs, and vines found in Washington, Oregon, northern California, and southern British Columbia. Kuhlmann defines trees as woody plants with one main stem at least 3 inches across at breast height, with a crown of foliage, and over 20-feet tall at maturity. Shrubs are shorter, with multiple narrower stems, and sub-shrubs are woody only at the base of the plant. Because the real world is wonderfully varied with plants not always fitting into our neat definition of “tree” or “shrub”, the guide is organized based on leaf-type instead of growth form.

To identify a species, readers first use color-coded sectional groups: conifers, plants with simple leaves, plants with compound leaves, and plants with no leaves, or insignificant leaves (i.e. cacti). Within each leaf category, the plants are broken down by leaf placement on the stem: alternative, opposite, basal or whorled. Illustrations of leaf arrangement, edges, shapes, and parts are presented in large line-drawing in the end-pages. Finally, within each leaf type section, the plants are organized alphabetically by family, genus, and species. The index does provide short-cuts if one knows the common or scientific name.

If you like Turner and Phyllis Gustafson’s earlier publication, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest, you will feel at home with this volume’s stunning photos and its parallel format, organization by plant family, and county distribution maps. Kuhlmann’s training as an ecologist made possible the inclusion of plant ecology narratives for most species to give the reader context beyond just identification. The introductory illustrated text provides a rich narrative, introducing regional ecoregion geography, habitat types, and concise plant family descriptions. The introduction appropriately highlights the conservation ethics of leave-no-trace and urges us to leave collecting to the professionals and to take only pictures.

After owning this book for only a few weeks, I’ve already broken in the binding, having read up on shrubs that are in bloom along the Wenatchee River. I can tell that my book will be a bit dog-eared before the snow flies!

Tips for Plant Identification

How to develop a system of “looking”
Adapted from page 11, “Learning About New Plants” in Trees and Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest by Mark Turner and Ellen Kuhlmann, (2014), Timber Press:

  1. GOAL: to get an overall impression of the plant.
  2. Try to examine several individuals to get a feel for the variability of individual plants.
  3. Think about seasonality: you may need to wait until the plant is flowering to identify it. Are the leaves present on the plant year-round? What are the fruits like? Does the entire plant die within one season (annual), or are is the plant alive for more than one season (perennial)?
  4. Be aware that some plants are easier to recognize than others, even for experts!
  5. Observe and take notes on specific aspects of the plant, describing:
    a. Where is it growing (habitat)? Is the plant in full sun or full shade? Are you in the mountains, at the seashore, or in the shrub-steppe?
    b. How big is the plant?
    c. What is the stem like? Single or many? Clumped together? Upright or lateral? stiff or weak? Are there any spines, prickles, or hairs?
    d. How are the leaves placed on the stem? Mostly on the ground (basal)? All along the stem? Or both?
    e. Leaf shape: Are they all the same shape? Is the leaf entire (simple) or divided into leaflets (compound)? How many leaflets in each leaf? Is the leaf needle-like?
    f. Leaf texture: Does it feel soft, leathery, hairy, sticky, or spiny? How does the leaf top compare to the leaf underside?
    g. Leaf attachment to the stem: Is it opposite, alternate (staggered), or whorled (spiral)? ; Is there a short “stem” (petiole) connecting the leaf to the stem?
    h. What are the flowers like? Beware: flower color may be highly variable between individual plants and may change as the flower ages.
    • Count the petals. Observe any pattern of color on the petal.
    • Count the sepals (Located at the base of the flower)
    • Count the stamens (male parts). Notice how the stamens are placed inside the petals. Are they shorter or longer than the petals?
    • Describe the shape of the pistil (female part). Open up the pistil and describe the inside chambers and placement of the developing seeds. Where does it attach to the flower- above or below the petal attachment?

All photos taken by Susan Ballinger

Blue elderberry Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulean

Blue elderberry Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulean. This fall, these shrubs will be loaded with tiny edible fruits, a preferred food for black bear. Look for re-sprouting shrubs in the Wenatchee foothills, where the September 2012 wildfires burned.

Oceanspray Holodsicus discolor

Oceanspray Holodsicus discolor. Other common names include creambush or ironwood. The very hard wood was used widely by Pacific Northwest Native Americans for digging sticks and shafts for arrows and spears.


Leave a Reply