An occasional series about eminent Scots unjustly forgotten or ignored
It has not occurred to me to write about plant hunter David Douglas because I’d already written about another plantsman who lived closer to our age, the redoubtable George Forrest, [see NOTES below] and anyhow, I was in the middle of writing an essay on a female Scottish medical pioneer. What caught my attention was a glowing reference to him by a none-too bright Oxbridge professor describing him as English. I’ll not name the absent-minded academic to avoid embarrassing him:
“The adventures of an ardent plant lover/collector during the 1820s and 1830s. David Douglas was a great English plant hunter. He documented, collected, and returned to England over 200 new species of plants commonly found in contemporary gardens.”
That sort of wildly inaccurate factoid is what one expected to read in early editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica, where entries were written by out of work newspaper hacks keen to make a few shillings an entry.
Douglas did send plants back to England’s Kew Gardens as well as to Scotland, but he was born in Scone, Perthshire. Once you’ve bumped into his best known discovery, a Douglas Fir, the second largest growing tree on the planet, told it’s a Douglas Fir, not a spruce or a pine, you will identify it again using both names, and assume, rightly, the discoverer of it was a Scot.
The Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii – Pinus douglasii), is the Oregon state tree. In that wilderness did Douglas make his name. There are now thousands planted in Scotland, a great timber for all sorts of things from furniture to boats.
From humble beginnings and through fortunate circumstance, Douglas became a highly regarded collector of Pacific Northwest plants and animals, which he sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, England, during the years before his death in 1834.
Born in the village of Scone on June 25, 1799, just north of Perth, Scotland, Douglas was the son of stonemason John Douglas and Jean Drummond. He attended local schools, and by the time he was eleven, he was working as a gardener for local landowners, the Earl of Mansfield and Sir Robert Preston. As the saying goes, getting up and on in the world depends a lot on who you know. Douglas’s associates were the best kind.
While working at the Botanical Garden in Glasgow, he became acquainted with the garden’s curator, Stewart Murray, and British botanist Sir William Jackson Hooker. Douglas attended Hooker’s lectures and had access to private libraries. Hooker later described him as a person of “great activity, singular abstemiousness, and energetic zeal.” Not being an unreliable boozer is a valued quality when a person is entrusted with collecting plants and bringing them home.
In 1823, on Hooker’s recommendation, the Royal Horticultural Society chose Douglas as a botanical collector. The Society intended to send Douglas to China, but arrangements fell through so he ended up going to eastern North America. And exactly like the great cartographer Dr John Rae, Douglas joined the Hudson’s Bay company which took him to North America and the beginnings of his explorations.
In 1824, he found passage on a Hudson’s Bay Company vessel, the William and Ann, and arrived in Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River on April 7, 1825. Among his duties were keeping a journal of his activities and collecting seeds and plant specimens that might be useful as horticultural plants in England.
Here is an extract from one of his journals, a good example of the wonders he came upon, and the hardships he endured to collect new species:
“June 1st. 1827. The day began with a goodly collection of plants: Ribes; flowers faint yellow, in large racemes; abundant on the outskirts of woods; a fine plant, 5 feet high. Found Phlox Hoodii in flower, or rather I might say declining. Returned well pleased ; supped earlier than usual.
A party of hunters went out at daylight after the herd of animals seen last night. Most willingly I followed them, not for the purpose of hunting but gathering plants. and again disembarked. Accompanied by Mr. F. McDonald, they readily were guided to their companions by calls, and found Mr. Harriott and Ermatinger pursuing a bull that had been wounded, in which he joined.
The animal, which had suffered less injury than was expected, turned and gave chase to Mr. McDonald and overtook him. His case being dreadful coming in contact with such a formidable animal and exasperated, seeing that it was utterly impossible to escape, he had presence of mind to throw himself on his belly flat on the ground, but this did not save him. He received the first stroke on the back of the right thigh, and pitched in the air several yards. The wound sustained was a dreadful laceration literally laying open the whole back part of the thigh to the bone; received five more blows, at each of which he went senseless.
Perceiving the beast preparing to strike him a seventh, he laid hold of his wig (his own words) and hung on; man and bull sank the same instant. His companions had the melancholy sensation of standing to witness their companion mangled and could give no assistance all their ball being fired.
Being under cloud of night, and from what had taken place, his life could not be expected. One returned and acquainted the camp, when each with his gun went off to the spot. On arriving some of the half-breed hunters were in a body to discharge their guns at him, when I called out to Mr. Harriott not to allow them to fire all together; that one well-directed shot was enough and by firing more Mr. McDonald if alive might fall by one, being close if not under the bull. He agreed to it, but while giving orders to some that he depended on, a shot went off by accident without doing any injury to anyone, and had the unexpected good fortune to raise the bull, first sniffing his victim, turning Kim gently over, and walking off.
I went up to him and found life still apparent, but quite senseless. He had sustained most injury from a blow on the left side, and had it not been for a strong double sealskin shot-pouch, with ball, shot, wadding, &c., which shielded the stroke, unquestionably he must by that alone have been deprived of life.”
In addition to showing how Douglas had acquired the scientist’s skill of noting the smallest detail mixed with a novelist’s ability to recreate the scene and story, the incident is highly significant in the manner of Douglas’s own death, which I’ll recount shortly.
Douglas visited North America three times, twice to the Pacific Northwest and California to look for plants, particularly fruit trees, forest trees, and oaks. On his 1826 trip to present-day Oregon, Douglas took careful notes on the local vegetation as he travelled up the Willamette Valley. On September 30, he recorded one of the earliest descriptions of the Indian use of fire:
“Most parts of the country burned; only on little patches in the valleys and on the flats near low hills that verdure is to be seen. Some of the natives tell me it is done for the purpose of urging the deer to frequent certain parts, to feed, which they leave unburned, and of course they are easily killed. Others say it is done in order that they might the better find wild honey and grasshoppers, which both serve as articles of winter food.”
In October, he traveled farther south to near present-day to the Umpqua River, primarily to collect the cones of the sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana). On October 26, he described an encounter with a local man who led him to the “long-wished-for pines.” While shooting the cones out of a tall tree, which Douglas described as hanging at the tips of branches “like small sugar-loaves in a grocer’s shop,” he attracted several natives who seemed “anything but friendly.” After a tense standoff, one man indicated that they wanted tobacco. Douglas responded that he would oblige them if they brought him more cones. The men went in one direction, Douglas high-tailed it in the other.
Douglas was interested in all aspects of the landscape, including animals. Those named in his honor range from the pigmy short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma douglasii) to the Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii).
In 1827, Douglas traveled through the Northern Rockies and then to York Factory on Hudson Bay before returning to London to work on his collections. He was back on the California coast in 1831-1832, collecting plants and animals and making geographic observations. In 1832, on his return to the Columbia River, he made his first visit to the Hawaiian Islands. He planned a return to London and then to his homeland and Scone.
Unable to get prompt transportation to England, he met his untimely death. He was killed by a bull while climbing Mauna Kea in Hawaii in 1834. The story goes that he stumbled into a bull trap and was crushed by a bull that fell into the same trap. There’s a cloud over his death. He was last seen talking to Englishman Edward “Ned” Gurney, a bullock hunter and escaped convict. When Douglas was found by Gurney the money Gurney turned into the local authorities was less than Douglas has set out with.
Douglas was at one with the plant kingdom, a natural environmentalist when no such category existed. He understood trees of the same species don’t like encroaching upon each other, they keep their canopies separate, ‘crown shyness’ it’s called. They don’t cramp each other’s style or fight for light. He never discovered how sensitive their roots are, that trees share water, sugars and other nutrients, and pass chemical and electrical messages to one another, facts discovered by today’s scientists.
Douglas is recorded as walking over 10,000 miles in search of plants. He was a natural historian whose name is honoured in more than eighty species of plants and animals. If ever a film producer is looking for a great adventure story, Douglas is the perfect choice. At Scone Castle, near Douglas’s birthplace, stands a magnificent Douglas-fir, grown from seed that he sent back from western North America in 1826. His introduction of Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) to Scotland forms the basis of our country’s conifer forestry.
Douglas is still a hero among botanists, just a shame so many Scots have never heard of him yet know of his fir tree, the top of which we decorate every Christmas festival.
- Finding David Douglas (film). Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission.http://www.findingdaviddouglas.org/
- David Douglas:Explorer and Botanist. Mitchell, Ann Lindsay, and Syd House. London: Asurum Press,1999.
- The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Pacific Northwest. Nisbet, Jack. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2009.
- David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work. An Illustrated Exploration Across Two Centuries in th Pacific Nothwest. Nisbet, Jack. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2012.
- David Douglas journal – Travels in North America, 1823-1827. Published under the direction of the Royal Horticultural Society. New York: Antiquarian Press, 1959.
- Indiana Forrest, the Life of George Forrest: https://wp.me/p4fd9j-a4s