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David Douglas

David Douglas of Scone

David Douglas, plant hunter extraordinary, sometimes
known as Douglas of the Fir, on account of his connection with the forest species of that name, was born in Scone in 1799. Of him, A. G. Harvey, in his book Douglas of the Fir, published in 1947, says: “Hardly a garden exists that does not have the clarkia, marposa
lily, Californian poppy, or some of the lupins, phlox, penstemons, mimulus, or others of his beautiful flowers.”
Towering over all is the great tree, the Douglas fir, in connection with which he is chiefly remembered. In addition to seeds it appears that he sent home samples of the wood. Today, in the Scone Palace grounds near his birthplace, may be seen a sturdy Douglas fir raised from the first seeds brought home by him in 1827.

Born in Scone, as we have said, on June 25, 1799, he was the second oldest son of a stonemason, in a family of three boys and three girls. Having defied the authority of a small school near his home, by playing truant and indulging in high-spirited mischief, he was transferred to Kinnoull School (headmaster, Mr. Wilson), in Perth,
attendance at which involved for him a walk of six miles there and back daily-journeys through the countryside that no doubt developed in him his love of nature and hardened him for the arduous journeys he was to undertake later in life. At home young Douglas kept pets, such as hawks and owls, often spending his lunch money on food for them. Never a great lover of school from his early days, Douglas, we are told, often “showed his contempt for the school-master’s thong.” Before his eleventh birthday he left school to be a gardener’s boy
in the nursery garden at Scone Palace, under Mr. Beattie, with whom he was a great favourite because of his interest in his new work. As a result Mr. Beattie often took the boy’s side in his high-spirited disputes with the other garden lads, saying he “preferred a deevil to a dolt. ”During this period Douglas was an avid reader of books such as “Sinbad the Sailor” and “Robinson Crusoe.” And he began, too, to read all the books on natural history on which he could lay his hands. An old friend gave him a bible, saying. “There, David, I cannot recommend a better book for you to read.” In summer he made small expeditions in search of plants for his small garden—but never on Sundays, as this was forbidden by his father, who was strict on Sabbath observance.

In 1818, Douglas transferred to Valleyfield, near Cuiross, the home of Sir Robert Preston. After two years there improving his botanical knowledge, he moved on to the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow, where he came to the notice of Professor Wm. Hooker, who took him on several botanical excursions to the Highlands. By his zeal and courage and knowledge Douglas proved himself well suited to the life of a botanical traveller.

At the age of 24, Douglas joined the Horticultural Society in London as a botanical collector, on the recommendation of Professor Hooker. On June 3, 1823, he set off for eastern U.S.A., in the sailing ship “Ann Maria.” It is recorded that as the stagecoach conveyed them from London to Liverpool Douglas seized oppor-
tunities to botanize at the roadside whenever the horses were being changed! His instructions from his employers on this occasion were “to collect seeds and specimens of trees and plants not in cultivation, or not described.” He returned in 1824, earning great praise from the society for the collection he brought with him. “The mission was executed by Mr. Douglas with a success beyond expectation,” says the Horticultural Society’s official publication. “He obtained many plants which were much wanted, and greatly increased our collection of fruit trees.” Six months later saw him set sail in the three-masted brig “William and Ann” for the Pacific coast of America. After rounding Cape Horn, Douglas collected some 70 plants from the island of Juan Fernandez (Robinson Crusoe’s island), including ferns, lobelia, escallonia, hypericum and verbena. At length they reached the mouth of the Columbia River on April 7, in the year 1825—the voyage having taken over eight months. He proceeded to travel inland many miles by canoe, living off roots used by the Indians, his clothes in rags. The Indians, he says, thought he was a bad spirit because he drank boiling water (tea) and lit his pipe with a burning glass! He discovered the sugar pine, pinus Lambertjanj, reaching to a height of 220 feet, with a circumference of 50 feet, and having cones 18 inches
long—”like sugar loafs.”

But now his eyes, impaired by wind-blown sand and by snow-blindness caused by climbing mountains in summer, began to trouble him. He notes in his diary: “Read or write I cannot, but in the morning without pain. . . That which gratified me most was a beautiful peony, the only one of the genus in America, with a flower that is dark purple outside and yellow within. . He discovered, too, the Douglas fir, known to him as pinus tax~fo1ia, but which was named after him later. Fallen trees of the species he found to measure 227 feet in length and 48 feet in circumference. He commented: “The wood may be found very useful for a variety of domestic purposes: the young slender ones exceedingly well adapted for making ladders and scaffold poles. . . the larger timber for more important purposes.” He also found two other new firs: pinus nobis and pinus amabilis, and continued to make many discoveries of planta, animals, birds and insects. In the course of his travels he was probably the first white man to ascend the Blue Mountains.

At the Hudson Bay station at Fort Vancouver he was supplied with a bright suit of Royal Stuart tartan to replace his ragged clothing, to the astonishment of the Indians he met on his way, he journeyed overland to Hudson Bay, and thence to England, where he arrived in the year 1827, having spent two years travelling
strenuously in North West America. From the great store of seeds and plants he brought back with him, the Royal Horticultural Society raised 210 plants in its garden—
of which 130 were subsequently sent all over the world. Douglas was feted and honoured wherever he went.
Then, on October 31, 1829, after a visit to his mother at Scone, he set sail from England for the last time “to discover the botanical treasures of the interior of California” and “to explore the whole country west of the Rockies, as far as he could safely get.” Prior to sailing, we are told that he had difficulty in obtaining a Bible with large enough type to accommodate his failing eyesight! On June 3, 1830, he arrived again on the Columbia, and immediately set about fresh botanical excursions. In a few weeks he was able to dispatch home from Fort George three chests of seeds and plants. Of the genus Pinus he sent home a bundle of six species. Later, in
a letter to Professor Hooker, he observed: “You will begin to think that I manufacture pines at my pleasure.” Of the six pines sent home on this occasion Douglas considered Pinus nobilis the best, an estimate borne out by the extravagant prices young plants of the tree fetched later in England, 15 to 20 guineas not being uncommon for a single plant.

In November, 1830, Douglas sailed to California, arriving in Monterey on December 22, 1830. He spent 19 months in the country, botanising busily in the brief Californian spring. When he left Monterey in August, 1832, he took with him some 60 new plants, among others, including five mariposa lilies, a new species of evening primrose, penstemon, the pretty bush poppy, lupins, wild heliotrope
—in all, a collection of plants that caused a sensation when it arrived in England. Douglas travelled back to the Columbia region via the Sandwich Lslands, where he was able to effect the successful dispatch of a pair of Sandwich Island geese to London. Two months after leaving California, Douglas arrived back at Fort Vancouver; and shortly afterwards, despite continuing trouble with his eyesight, he set off on a trip to New Caledonia (now Northern British Columbia) in pursuance of an idea that he might ultimately return to England via Siberia. Hostile natives and difficult country, however, compelled him to retreat to Fort Vancouver. At Fort George Canyon disaster was added to disappointment
when his canoe was smashed to pieces in the turbulent rapids. Everything was lost: journals, food, blankets, and upwards of 400 plant specimens. Disappointed in his plan for an Alaskan~Siberian journey, Douglas turned his attention to the tropical Sandwich Islands. On October 18, 1833, he left the Columbia, arriving at Honolulu on
December 23, 1833. He at once set about exploring Hawaii, and wrote a detailed account of his ascents of Mauna Kea. Kilaucea, and Mauna Loa.

He gathered in all 2,000 species of fern, 90 of them new, and one now named after him. Another plant now bearing his name was the pandaus, or screwpine—the swordlike leaves of which the natives made into mats and fans.
Back in Honolulu, Duncan sought a ship for England. But,
finding none immediately available, on July 3, 1834, he set off to further explore the volcanoes of Hawaii. On July 9 he began the ascent of Mauna Kea, accompanied by a black manservant John and his little terrier. John, however, became lame and was forced to stop. leaving Douglas to go on alone. He was never seen alive again.
Apparently on his way he passed three bullock pits dug to entrap wild animals. He fell into one in which a trapped bullock lay, and was crushed to death by the frenzied creature. A native passing by saw his limbs protruding, and summoned a Mr. Gurney, a cattle hunter, with whom Douglas was acquainted. Gurney returned and shot the animal and extricated Douglas’s body, which was carried to a mission station on the coast, before being transported to Honolulu. There it was laid to rest in Kawaiahao Churchyard. The grave was unmarked. In 1855 a white marble stone, suitably inscribed, was sent by an English visitor at his own expense, and affixed to the wall at the entrance to the church. But tropical sun and showers combined to render it illegible in a few years.

At home, the Perthshire Royal Horticultural Society made a worldwide appeal for contributions to set up a memorial to Douglas at Scone. In 1841 a column 23 feet tall was erected in Scone Churchyard, by the lovers of botany in Europe.” On one side of it was a tribute to Douglas’s work and character, and on the other side a long list of the trees, plants and shrubs introduced to Europe by Douglas. Today the lettering can be deciphered only with difficulty, and indeed in some places it is fast becoming illegible. But perhaps Douglas has no need of those fading memorials to keep his memory bright. His true memorials are the living, growing trees and plants which he brought from the New World, and which do so much to brighten our gardens as the seasons come and go. Consider some of them: flowering currants, antirrhinums, phlox, penstemons, mimulus, godetia, lupins, clarkia. Californian poppy. beuchera, and many others.

In 1962, in Perth, in front of Baihousie Castle, facing the North inch, a Douglas memorial garden was opened, plants and seeds for it being gifted by botanical garden authorities and horticultural friends in the British Isles and America. So a living, lasting memorial has at last been created to perpetuate the memory of David Douglas, who, although he died young in years, yet fulifiled his destiny as fully as it is given to few men to do!

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