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Issue 45 - David Douglas

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 45
June 2009


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David Douglas

We look into the life of a 19th century Scottish botanist and explorer.

The occupation ‘plant hunter’ may sound sedate, but in the early 19th century, when much of the new world was unexplored, this would have been an extremely dangerous and physically demanding job. So dangerous in fact that it would eventually cost one of Scotland’s most famous plant hunters his life.

David Douglas is best remembered by his most famous introduction, the magnificent Douglas fir.

He was born in Scone in 1799, the son of a stonemason, and first set foot on his chosen career path at the age of 11, when he was employed as a gardener’s boy at Scone Palace.

The young apprentice spent seven years at Scone, and after a spell working in Fife (where he had access to a library of books on botany and zoology) he moved to the Botanical Gardens in Glasgow.

Here he attended many botany lectures through the University and must have impressed his professor, a man called William Hooker, for he took Douglas on plant-finding expeditions in the Highlands.

In 1823, on Hooker’s recommendation, Douglas moved to the Horticultural Society of London.

He was sent on his first expedition to North America that same year, aged 24.

Initially Douglas spent time in New Jersey and then the Hudson and Mohawk rivers to Niagara Falls. His brief was to collect plants not in cultivation or not described, fruit trees in particular.

His next mission in 1824 was to the Pacific coast of North America. He explored the Columba River by birch bark canoe paddled by native Americans. It was this trip that gave him the seeds of the Douglas Fir (though Douglas gave it the botanical name pseudotsuga menziesii after the botanist Archibald Menzies, also from Perthshire, who had sailed there earlier with Captain Vancouver). Back home, the seeds of this ‘new’ tree were considered to be well worth the entire cost of the expedition, which at that time was a small fortune.

Botanical circles were amazed by the number and importance of his discoveries. But he didn’t stop. In 1825 and 1826 he covered a total of 6,000 miles in rough territory, far from civilisation.

In 1827 he became the first European to climb the northern Rocky Mountains, and in so doing named a number of them, including Mount Hooker after his professor at Glasgow University.

It is difficult to imagine the great, native forests of the Pacific Northwest that David Douglas explored in late 1820s and early 1830s. Douglas frequently risked life and limb on expeditions to North America.

On one occasion when Douglas was attempting to collect the cones of pinus lambertiana, the Sugar Pine, by shooting them out of the incredibly tall tree with his rifle, he found himself surrounded by Indians. Averting what could have been a nasty situation, he layed his rifle on the trunk of a fallen tree and offered the natives tobacco in exchange for more cones they could gather for him, which they did.

Douglas was able to send back hundreds of plants, seeds, letters, journals and skins of birds and animals from his explorations in North America. Many of the plants he collected are now commonplace in European gardens including lupins, phlox, penstemmon, sunflowers, clarkia, Californian poppy, mimulus, flowering currant, rose of sharon (hypericum), gaillardia and mahonia.

In the United Kingdom, David Douglas was a hero. Fêted by his peers he was made a fellow of the Geological and Zoological Societies of London. Although he was never entirely comfortable with the fame. On one visit home he travelled to Scotland to see his mother, now a widow, and planted a seed of the Douglas Fir in the grounds of Scone Palace – which is still growing there today.

David Douglas died in 1834 during an expedition in Hawaii. His winter visits to the pacific islands were routine, as he found them to be as rich in flora as the forests of Oregon had proved to be.

While hunting for plants in the mountains, he fell into a pit dug by the natives for trapping wild cattle. It is not known whether there was already a bull in the pit, or whether it fell in after our plant hunter, but the result was the same. When searchers came upon the site, his faithful dog was sitting near the edge of the pit and the bull had long since stopped mauling Douglas’s body.

A tragic end for someone whose plant hunting adventures still rank among the world’s greatest botanical explorations. The plants and trees he brought back with him would alter the landscape and gardens of Britain forever.