The first European to "discover" the species was David Douglas who mistook the tree for eastern dogwood (Cornus florida). The two species are similar, but Pacific dogwood has four or six white bracts, while the eastern dogwood produces only four bracts which range from white to deep pink. The first person to recognize Pacific dogwood as a distinct species was Thomas Nuttall when he found it at Fort Vancouver in 1834. Cornus nuttallii was given its name by John James Audubon, the renowned bird painter, who was a close friend of Nuttall's. Audubon decided to include Pacific dogwood in his painting of the band-tailed pigeon, as the tree's berries are a principle food for the bird.

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