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Susan Ballinger | New guide points out our native shrubs, trees

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Provided photo 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.

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 shortcuts 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!

Susan Ballinger’s next 12-week Wenatchee Naturalist course will be offered in the fall through Wenatchee Valley College Continuing Education, with both daytime and evening options.