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Douglas fir got its name from fervent botanist

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By Sylvia Brockner

The Douglas fir, pseudotsuga menziesii, is one of our loveliest trees. It is probably the largest tree growing in our forests today. It has a fascinating history that is closely woven with the man for whom it was named, David Douglas.

Douglas was born in Scone, the ancient sight of the rulers of Scotland. He was a poor student in school and was only happy when studying about the outdoors. Both his teachers and his father thought he would never amount to anything and there was no money to send him to college. So his father got him a job working as an apprentice in the Scone Palace Gardens.

He learned all he could about gardening and flowers, and when he had any free time, he often went out collecting wildflowers. He daydreamed about sometime being able to go along on one of the great excursions as a naturalist and collecting flowers in America.

He did so well in his job that he was soon hired to work for Sir Robert Preston in his gardens at Dunfermline. From there he took a job in the famous Botanical Gardens in Glasgow. There he met Dr. William Jackson Hooker, professor of botany at Glasgow University.

Hooker was one of the famous botanists of the day, and Douglas didn’t miss a single lecture. One day he introduced himself to Dr. Hooker, and out of this grew a friendship and the two men did a lot of collecting in the Scottish Highlands.

Douglas had by now become a recognized botanist in his own right and joined the Royal Horticultural Society. The society financed an excursion to America with Dr. Hooker in charge, and Douglas was hired to go along to collect plants. The dream he had always hoped for had come true.

After more than five months at sea, Douglas couldn’t wait to get ashore at Vancouver. After more months collecting in the rich rain forests around Vancouver, Douglas planned to return to England on the next ship. However, he decided not to go and instead packed up a huge collection of plants and seeds, as well as animal and bird skins, and sent them on the ship. He kept a duplicate collection of the plant, to take back with him, as if he believed the ship could not sink if he was on it. Then he settled down to spend the winter in Vancouver.

In the spring he took a small number of men from the Hudson Bay Co. and set out to collect plants, going south to search for the pine tree that had such good seeds to eat. He was searching for the pinyon tree whose nuts the local American Indians had given him to eat. When he asked them where they grew, all they would say was they traded for them with other Indians and said they came from the south.

He never did find the pinyon pine, but it was on this trip that some Indians found him using a gun to shoot pinecones from the top of a giant tree. They already had named him “Grass Man” because all he did was collect grasses. They decided he was a little bit crazy and let him go because he was wasting precious and expensive bullets to bring down pinecones, which weren’t even good to eat.

After another winter in Vancouver, on March 20, 1827, he left with a crew of men from the Hudson’s Bay Express Co. to go up the Columbia River by boat until the streams became too shallow for the boats loaded with botanical items, furs, etc. They acquired some horses and took their packs by horseback until the snow became so deep that the horses couldn’t wade through it.

At that point they dragged out snow shoes, turned the horses loose, put the packs on their own backs and started off again. The Hudson’s Bay Express Co. packed things through, but they did not say whether it was by horseback or men’s backs, as long as it arrived at its destination.

I can’t imagine how they ever survived that trip from Vancouver to the headwaters of the Columbia River over Athabasca Pass to Fort Edmonton to Norway House to York Factory. There was still deep snow in the mountains. They had to ford ice-cold rivers constantly, wade through cedar swamps and cross hot, dry prairies. They finally reached York Factory and on Aug. 20 took sail from Hudson’s Bay to England. Douglas found he had become famous, but he found the civilized life in London boring.

Since he was a very young man, Douglas had had eye trouble. He never mentioned it to anyone for fear it would keep him from going on another expedition. He was obsessed with collecting especially in the Pacific Northwest. So, before long, with some help from Hooker, he had once more gotten himself on an expedition to his beloved Northwestern America.

He went up the coast of Alaska on his trip, then down the coast to see the giant redwoods and still further down the coast to collect California poppies, blue flax, and many, many plants that have become common garden plants today.

It was the common custom at the time for ships leaving Vancouver to stop in Hawaii on their way back to England. Douglas, who could not stand not being busy, took a small boat to Hilo to visit friends at the mission there. His ship was going to be in port for several days, and he had time to kill and hoped to find some new plants on Hilo.

He and his little black dog went up a trail into the mountains, and when he did not return, they sent search parties to look for him. They had warned him that the natives dug large pits along the trail, and covered them with light twigs and leaves to trap wild bulls and warned him to be careful.

He avoided two pits but fell into the third one, and it already had a bull in it. They found his gored remains and his stomped botanical case in the pit, and his little black dog sitting at the rim.

Although Douglas was on 35 years old when he died, he had added more new plants to the collections in England than anyone else had ever done before.