The Great Scottish Plant Hunter – David Douglas

I recently received news and a photograph from a gardening friend who looks after a garden that I previously looked after in Dumfries and Galloway. To my horror, the picture showed an enormous Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, fallen over in the wind. This tree stood as part of a grove of big Douglas firs which were fifty metres from the cottage I lived in, it was quite saddening. I have always been mesmerised by giant conifers; their grandeur and presence in the landscape is unrivalled in my opinion by any other plant group. 

Scotland is particularly well suited to growing the beautiful conifers of North Western America. It boasts many of the finest examples of such conifers in Britain, or indeed worldwide, outside their natural environments. The landscape of Scotland and its gardens and parks has been transformed by the introductions of many of these colossal beings. The collector responsible for the introduction of many was David Douglas.

Before Plant Hunting

David Douglas is considered one of the greatest plant hunters of the 19th century. From Scone in Perthshire, David was born in 1799 into a working class household; his father was a stone mason. Upon leaving school he began a seven year apprenticeship in the gardens of Scone Palace under the watchful eye of head gardener, William Beattie.

A short period of employment at Valleyfield House in Fife allowed David access to a private library containing many botanical and zoological books giving him the opportunity to self educate. This hunger for knowledge led David to the Botanic Gardens of Glasgow, where he began to attend lectures in botany delivered by William Jackson Hooker. 

Hooker, who was then Gardens Director and Professor of Botany, became impressed by David’s desire and enthusiasm towards the subject and subsequently invited him to join him in a botanical exploration of the Scottish Highlands. Following their trip, Hooker recommended Douglas to The Royal Horticultural Society of London, allowing David the opportunity to earn his place in the pages of horticultural history.

The First Expedition

His first expedition in June 1823 was originally scheduled for China but due to unrest in the country, it was decided that he should instead travel to eastern North America. His brief primarily was to collect fruit trees but also to collect any new species which had not yet been described. 

During this trip, he visited Niagara Falls. His journal noted, “I am like most who have seen them, sensitively impressed with their grandeur but particularly with a red cedar which grew out the rocks on the channel of the river.” Even when faced with one of the greatest natural wonders on earth, David noting a tree growing on the peripheries displayed his devotion to his field. 

This first trip saw him return home with a collection of predominantly fruit trees and American Oaks but also a suite of new ornamental plants unknown to Scottish horticulture at the time. His efforts were obviously deemed acceptable by his backers as they earned him the chance to go back. In total, David Douglas made three trips to North America.

The Great Botanical Crusade

In 1824, David Douglas set off on his second expedition, this time backed by the infamous Hudson Bay Company. This was probably the most significant botanical exploration in Scottish history. This time, the focus was the Pacific West Coast of North America. The journey there took no less than eight months by sea. 

Along the journey, stops were made in Madeira and the Galápagos Islands with the opportunity to collect plants along the way being taken. Unfortunately, the constant rain at sea seemingly made drying these specimens impossible and many spoiled. 

On 7th of April 1825, Douglas arrived at the Colombia River. He described this as his “highway to the floral wealth of N.W. America.” He travelled the area in a birch bark canoe made by native Americans, covering around two thousand miles in his first season including multiple trips to The Grand Rapids in the Cascade Mountains before returning to Fort Vancouver to over winter. 

During his second trip, Douglas got wind of an enormous and beautiful pine new to science, the Sugar Pine, Pinus lambertiana. After enduring horrendous travelling and sleeping conditions, injury caused by falling into a ravine and awful weather, David eventually found the Sugar Pine in Oregon. He described it as “the largest and most immense and tallest conifer in the world.” 

Unfortunately, with its massive size, gathering cones was not an easy task. After managing to shoot down three cones, David was reprimanded by Native Americans. Thankfully the promise of tobacco in exchange for more cones attracted the natives and whilst they attempted to attain these cones, David made his escape. 

Shortly afterwards, a hazardous river crossing would see David lose all the collections on his person with the exception of said three cones. This was one of the many exceptional conifer introductions David made from this second expedition.

Overwintering again in Fort Vancouver, David returned to the wilds in the spring of 1827. Heading east he traversed the Rocky Mountains. He spent much of the year in the mountains and further complemented his already vast collections made on this voyage before boarding a ship in Hudson Bay to return home in October 1827. 

The Demise of David Douglas

It is alleged that after a few years at home, David had irritated many of his friends through his boredom to the point that he was urged by them to return to North America. Not needing further encouragement, he took the chance to return and set off in 1830 for an exploration of California and its flora. On the way, he stopped at the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii. He became fascinated with the very unique botanical treasures held on these islands and vowed to return. 

California proved to be a rich hunting ground for him, with many new species being added to his ever expanding list of discovered and described species. By this time, Douglas had lost sight in one of his eyes and the sight of the other began to deteriorate. In December 1833, Douglas returned to Hawaii intending to spend three months there before heading home. He stayed longer than initially intended and spent much time botanising and exploring, being one of the first Europeans to reach the summit of Mauna Lau Volcano.

On 12th July, 1834, Douglas was found trampled to death by a bull in a pit trap made for catching wild cattle. He was thirty five years old. The circumstances were unknown but it could be assumed that he fell in due to his poor sight. His body was recovered and buried close by. The circumstances surrounding his death have been documented as dubious and it has been suggested that an escaped English convict named Edward Gurney played a part in the death of Douglas. Fortunately, his final collections and journal made it back home. 

David’s Collections

No other plant collector has made collections that have impacted the landscape in Scotland more than David Douglas. From his introductions, modern common garden staples include Ribes sanguineum, Lupinus polyphylla, and Garrya eliptica

Ribes sanguineum
Lupinus polyphylla

In total, Douglas introduced about two hundred and forty species of plants to European science which at the time were not described. In his honour, many of these species were named after him. These include Limnanthes douglasii, Celtis douglasii, Astagalis douglasii, Lonicera douglasii, and Solanum douglasii. These few are only an example and do not exhaust the many other species named in his honour. One genus was even named after him, Douglasia; the mountain pink. Unfortunately, not all his introductions have been a success. Gaultheria shallon is very invasive and can colonise gardens quite happily. 

Conifer Introductions

Of all Douglas’ introductions, it is his conifers that really put him at the top of the Scottish plant hunter stakes. Already mentioned was the iconic Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, one of the tallest growing tree species in the world. The tallest tree in Scotland and indeed the British isles is in Reelig Glen in Inverness-shire. It has been named Dughall Mhor. 

The Douglas fir is only one example of the many conifers Douglas introduced. Species introduced by Douglas include Abies procera, Abies grandis, Pinus radiata, Pinus contorta, Pinus lambertiana, and Pinus ponderosa, naming only a few. 

The introduction of the Sitka Spruce, Picea sitchensis, is what has had the greatest impact on Scotland’s plantation forestry. All too common to the eye of Scots, the Sitka spruce is an amazing tree species. It grows, in its native habitat, to become the fifth tallest tree on earth and is beautiful in its appearance and grandeur. In ideal growing conditions, it can grow up to a metre and a half per year. What’s more, the Sitka spruce is of high economic value, producing timber of high quality, suitable for construction although also often used for paper pulp production. Most importantly, it forms one of the most exceptional, statuesque specimen trees. 

David Douglas’ pioneering spirit and ability to persevere even in the hardest of conditions are enviable qualities. What made David exceptional at what he did were his abilities as a field botanist: simply put, he knew his plants.

From Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway, Lachlan Rae trained at Barony College Dumfries and later at RGBE Edinburgh and SRUC Edinburgh. He won CIH Young Horticulturist of the Year 2017.

Since leaving Edinburgh, he has been looking after estate gardens as Head Gardener, notably at Wiston Estate, West Sussex and Auchendolly Estate, Dumfries and Galloway. He is currently Senior Horticulturist at Gresgarth Hall and you can follow his activities on Instagram.

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