Architect Of The Arboretum -- Shoreline Community College Professor Tries To Catalog Every Plant On Campus

At first, they jeered it as "Shoreline Concrete College" - the adobe-hued campus built on what had been 72 acres of wooded preserve purchased from the Boeing Estate in the early 1960s.

So the Shoreline School District recruited Seattle landscape architect Ed Watanabe to create an environment teeming with plant life. "Plant-ins" were conducted in the early '70s, with professors and students raiding wholesale nurseries, buying seedlings and plants for a campus that would live again with native and newly introduced vegetation.

"At the time, we thought the campus had the potential of being an arboretum," said Professor Don McVay, who helped oversee the effort.

McVay began labeling plants as they found root, but years passed and the project got lost in time. So, too, did the identities of the evolving flora.

Plants died, changed, got relocated. And ever since, the unfinished project plagued McVay, like a boll weevil gnawing on cotton.

This year, the 57-year-old biology instructor finally did something about it.

Unless you're looking for them, you'd probably never see the little silver tags fastened to trees and shrubs along the walkways of Shoreline Community College.

McVay put them there, but even if he hadn't, he'd see them anyway. He's that type of guy. He has degrees in biology and zoology plus a greenhouse full of orchids at home, and minding nature is his thing.

The college's board of trustees last year granted McVay a year's leave to complete the aborted project, and in the past year he's compiled a walk-through guide to campus flora, and is putting the final touches on an accompanying video.

"People have said it's a labor of love to do all of this stuff," he said. "But I think it's important, in this time of cutting, to show the value of an ecosystem."

Using a computerized system patterned after one used by a British arboretum, McVay has carded just about every plant on the campus. He demonstrates his information bank with the enthusiasm of a boy playing Nintendo.

"See that little grove over there of ponderosa pine?" he said one cloudy morning last week, pointing out his office window toward a spot somewhere in the distance. He swiveled in his chair and pulled out a map. He has divided the campus into 80 planting areas, and all he has to do if he wants the lowdown on a shrub is punch in a plant area code and a three-digit ID code, the one listed on the little silver tags he's been scattering around the landscape.

And bam - there it is, the name of the plant, genus, species, how many there are in the area and when they were planted. The computer tells him there are 18 pinus ponderosa in that area, and that they've been there since 1973.

Working 10 to 12 hours a day, often on weekends, McVay found 193 plant species on the Shoreline campus, 72 of them represented in Area 57, otherwise known as the school's natural preserve. Beginning last spring, McVay enlisted the aid of his students in an effort to identify every plant in the 8.3-acre preserve.

Area 57, at the southeast corner of the campus, is much more scenic than its name would indicate, as a quick tour by McVay points out. Walking along the greenery-lined path, McVay spits out bits of botanical nomenclature while explaining that although the area is immune to human influence, mini-dramas sometimes play out among the plants themselves.

Some plants elbow past others, aided by thorns. Some shade out competitors, preventing or hampering photosynthesis, the process by which plants eat. "The Himalayan berries are smothering the salal," he said in his mild-mannered way as he passed a plant setting that, to the inexperienced observer, looked just like the last one.

McVay, a gray-haired hybrid of Alan Alda and Kirk Douglas, said his interest in biology dates back to his childhood.

"I guess I'm still a kid at heart," he said. "A lot of people lose their curiosity. A lot of people walk around campus and don't see a single bird, and I walk around and see 80 species of birds.

"Who was it - Reagan? - who said, `Once you've seen one redwood, you've seem them all'? Saying it like there's no difference between one plant and another. And that's a bunch of bull. There's as many differences between plants as there are between people."

Minding nature is his thing, you see.

McVay said he's finding new species on campus all the time, things like cornus nuttalli (Pacific dogwood) and populus tremuloides (quaking aspen) and even a sequioadendron giganteum (giant sequoia). The most common family of plants on campus is ericaceae, which includes evergreen trees and shrubs with rounded, tubular or bell-shaped flowers.

Through his office window he looks out at Norway maples; inside he consults books of conifers and studies the tree segments he has collected with an increment borer, a corkscrew-like instrument that helps measure the age of trees.

Head groundskeeper Bob Gardner and his crew keep the campus looking as good as it does, he said, and as far as McVay knows, Shoreline Community College is the only campus to systematically identify its vegetation.

Has it been worth it? The board of trustees apparently thought so when it approved McVay's time off. But those in the community appreciate the effort too, he said.

"I couldn't believe it: As soon as I put one label up I had 12 people standing around going, `Oh, that's what that is - I've got one of those in my garden. And now I know what it is.' "

Here are some excerpts from Don McVay's walk-through campus plant tour of Shoreline Community College. (There are 75 species total in the tour).

-- Quaking aspen, populus tremuloides, Salicaceae. Northwest of 900 building on the west side of the walkway. With the slightest breeze, the leaves of this deciduous tree quiver and shake. The smooth gray bark and finely toothed leaves are typical of aspens.

-- Alaska yellow cedar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, Cupressaceae. South of the entrance to the gymnasium (1900 building). This is a beautiful specimen of the pendula form of this tree, due to the weeping nature of the branches and tip. Crushed needles have a pungent aroma.

-- London plane tree, Platanus acerifolia, Platanaceae. Two large trees at the south entrance to the 1500 building. It is similar to the American sycamore, with interesting mottled bark, but has deeper lobes to its leaves and smoother fruit clusters. Due to its tolerance for air pollution, it has been used for planting along city streets.

-- Mountain ash, Sorbus Aucuparia, Rosaceae. Southeast of the 1100 building, south of the large rock. The clusters of orange berries, which may persist throughout the winter, are another source of bird food. The berries are very rich in vitamin C and make good jelly.