David Douglas and the Douglas Fir

Douglas-fir at North Fork Skykomish Trail, Washington, USA

Douglas fir at North Fork Skykomish Trail, Washington, USA
Image: Mark A. Taff

On June 25 1799Scottish botanist David Douglas was born. Douglas was one of the most successful of the great 19th century plant collectors. Today, he is best known as the namesake of the Douglas fir. He worked as a gardener, and explored the Scottish Highlands, North America, and Hawaii, where he died.

David Douglas was apprenticed to the head gardener at Scone Palace, the seat of the Earl of Mansfield and spent several years in this position. At Perth college, Douglas intended to learn more about scientific and mathematical aspects of plant culture. He later moved to the Botanical Gardens of Glasgow University and attended botany lectures there. Back then, William Jackson Hooker was in the position of the Garden Director and Professor of Botany. He was impressed by David Douglas’ work and took him on an expedition to the Highlands before recommending him to the Royal Horticultural Society of London.

Botanist David Douglas

Botanist David Douglas

David Douglas went on three different trips from England to North America between 1823 and 1834. On his third trip, Douglas first visited Columbia River, then he headed towards San Francisco and later Hawaii. He returned to Columbia River in 1832 and went back to Hawaii one year later. However, Douglas’ second trip was probably his most successful. The botanist was sent plant-hunting in the Pacific-Northwest by the Royal Horticultural Society. In 1826Douglas was compelled to climb a peak near Athabasca Pass to take in the view. Further, David Douglas introduced the famous Douglas-fir into cultivation in 1827. Although the common name Douglas-fir refers to David Douglas, the tree’s scientific name, Pseudotsuga menziesii, honours a rival botanist, Archibald Menzies.

The coast Douglas fir grows (as its name might already have revealed) in the coastal regions from west-central British Columbia southward to central California. In California, it is found in the Klamath and California Coast Ranges as far south as the Santa Lucia Range, with a small stand as far south as the Purisima Hills in Santa Barbara County. The variety is currently (probably) the second-tallest conifer in the world. Extant coast Douglas fir trees grow 60–75 m or more in height and 1.5–2 m in diameter. Towards the inland, the coast Douglas fir is replaced by the interior Douglas fir  and intergrades with coast Douglas fir in the Cascades of northern Washington and southern British Columbia, and from there ranges northward to central British Columbia and southeastward to the Mexican border, becoming increasingly disjunct as latitude decreases and altitude increases.

Further notable introductions by David Douglas include Sitka Spruce, Sugar Pine, Western White Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Lodgepole Pine, Monterey Pine, Grand Fir, Noble Fir and several other conifers that transformed the British landscape and timber industry, as well as numerous garden shrubs and herbs such as the Flowering currant, Salal, Lupin, Penstemon and California poppy. All in all, Douglas introduced around about 240 species of plants to Britain.

During his trip to Hawaii, David Douglas became the second known European to reach the summit of the Mauna Loa volcano. Unfortunately, he died under mysterious circumstances while climbing Mauna Kea in Hawaiʻi at the age of 35 in 1834. It is widely assumed that he fell into a pit trap and was possibly crushed by a bull that fell into the same trap. He was last seen at the hut of Englishman Edward Gurney, a bullock hunter and escaped convict. Gurney was also suspected in Douglas’s death, as Douglas was said to have been carrying more money than Gurney subsequently delivered with the body. However, most investigators have concluded that Gurney’s account was true.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a lecture by Gary Moulton talking about the Lewis and Clark expedition and its aftermath.

References and Further Reading:

 

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