Look, First: Updating Scientific Method

This is red osier dogwood, or Siberian dogwood, if you will. Have a look at her.

Nice work with the star clusters there. Here’s another look:

See that? When she grows in low light conditions, she has very pale colours in the fall. Here’s another look, in slightly more open cover:

This is an effect that registers even the shading of one leaf by the next. Look at the variability above! And here, in deeper shade, the variability is still present but subdued:

Now, most leaves glow, even green autumn grass, even a fallen poplar leaf, but not the dogwoods above.

As you can see below, one reason dogwoods are pale is that they don’t give up their green cells easily.

It takes quite a bit of light to make them glow. Look at the image below in full sun. There’s glowing there, but not a huge amount.

All in all, they have an individual relationship with light. A poplar, on the other hand …

… glows all over the place. Whatever shade there is is not written into the leaf. This is a profound difference, really. But we were looking at dogwoods, so let’s look again:

See that? She divides in two, then into two, then into two. And sometimes, out of this fork, there are berries. The image below shows old berry clusters, picked clean by birds, and new buds. Note that the only part of the plant that doesn’t divide into twos is the berry cluster.

All this, red osier dogwood teaches us. She also has red bark, which warms her in the cold, as red gives not just light but heat as well.

Together, these thickets and her white berries …

… make a good world for birds. There’s a lot more we can see by looking at red osier dogwoods, and none of it is in the plant databases, such as the one put out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which goes like this:

The primary use of this species is for streambank protection.  It can be planted alone or with other species, such as willows.  Other beneficial uses are for fish and wildlife habitat improvement, windbreaks, slope stabilization, borders, and as an ornamental.

They’re not much better at description:

General: Dogwood Family (Cornaceae).  Redosier dogwood is a woody deciduous shrub generally 1.4-6 m (4.6-20 ft) tall.  The bark and twigs are reddish to purple and fairly smooth from autumn to late spring; after the leaves have fallen, the deep burgundy branches add color to the winter landscape.  The bark, twigs, and leaves are bright green in spring through summer.  The simple, opposite leaves are 5-10 cm (2-4 in) long, dark green above and hairy and lighter-colored below, with smooth margins, rounded bases, pointed tips, and falsely parallel veins. Flowering occurs from June to August.  The inflorescence is a cyme, with 2-3 mm (0.08-0.12 in) white to cream-colored flowers.  The white berries are smooth on the faces, furrowed on the sides.

A practical bunch, those American bureaucrats, yet they have failed to describe red osier dogwood or what she does. They already had a list of items to examine, including notes for identification:

  • Plant size
  • Plant shape
  • Bark colour
  • Leaf type
  • Leaf shape
  • Leaf characteristics
  • Flowering period
  • Flower type
  • Fruit description
  • Aesthetic qualities

They filled in the blanks. Observation of Red Osier dogwood might suggest a different list:

  • Makes shapes
  • Harvests heat
  • Slow to release light
  • Slow to stop working in the fall
  • Holds long-term reactions to light in her leaves
  • Doubles on mature twigs
  • Shelters and feeds birds

With a list like that, the type of exploration and use for dogwood changes dramatically, and none of it will come from the first list. Both are the result of observation, both are measurable, and both can lead to comparison and exploration. The trade-off is intriguing: the first list is a standardized scientific list that can be fed into a database and crunched to create family links, genetic studies, and so on; the second list will fail at that, but the expanded list of opportunities it provides is a good countermeasure. Both are good lists. So, that gets us to my point. Look at Dogwood:

Think about her. Think about that snow above. Don’t assume that what you see is random. Don’t assume it is planned. Just look. Sometimes she breaks her rules, even:

What? Not 2?

Then read the USDA material: Only then. Scientific method limits what it observed so that it can separate effects and determine processes. That’s invaluable. Scientific method, though, is not the only source of observation. In fact, reducing even a common plant like red osier dogwood to simple categories while observing it predetermines the outcome of any application of scientific method. One will, simply, discover what one set out to discover, as it was already determined by one’s chosen measures. Scientists then speak of creativity or creative insight as a way past this limitation, but, really, it’s only a limitation if you put it there in the first place. Look first. Pay attention. Then build categories, should you need to at that point. If you do it for a decade, as I have here, you will have a vocabulary of seeing, rather than one of lists, and even if you do it for a decade, you will still have questions, such as:

What is it about this shape? It is as compelling to a human observer as the red bark and the doubled twigs. What is going on? maybe in another ten years of watching, I’ll see an answer, or find it in a different plant entirely, somewhere. After all, staghorn sumac, also a lovely shrub, offers a hint. Here’s a male:

No star clusters! And here’s a female, with her drupe clusters. Doubling is not a thing here, even though it is with the males above.

The hint is that colour and shape are distributed differently. Only when they are internalized in your body will you see. That kind of seeing is not visual, but visual seeing is a fine start.

3 replies »

  1. one of your best for a long time.

    not sure if your beef is with scientific method or with taxonomy, but all same. there are many ways to look, many ways to see. excellent photos and observations. much thanks.

    John Kidder

    On Thu, Oct 21, 2021 at 10:07 PM Okanagan Okanogan wrote:

    > Harold Rhenisch posted: ” This is red osier dogwood, or Siberian dogwood, > if you will. Have a look at her. Nice work with the star clusters there. > Here’s another look: See that? When she grows in low light conditions, she > has very pale colours in the fall. Here” >


  2. Dynamic scientific description and relational description are wonderful. Thank you.

    In spring, with a fresh snow on the reddening bark (or does it just seem redder) is a balm for the soul.

    Moose barely ever leave my osiers to fill out their natural shape, unless one considers being browsed their natural shape.

    Osiers were the stuff of home-made bows and arrows when I was a kid in Wisconsin. For the string we used butcher cord.


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