Magazine article Geographical

Fir and Wide

Magazine article Geographical

Fir and Wide

Article excerpt

Intrepid botanist David Douglas braved hostile terrain in the New World to bring back a bounty of seeds for the British landscape. Almost two centuries later, Michael Hugh follows in the footsteps of the so-called Grass Man

IN THE EARLY 1800S, the pioneering plant collector David Douglas walked, rode on horseback and canoed over 16,000 kilometres in northwestern America in search of new botanical species to take back to his native Britain. His travels extended from one sprawling corner of America up to the wild Canadian Rockies and down to the warmer climes of California. On his travels he gathered a variety of tree and plant species which were to change the landscapes first of Europe and then the rest of the world forever.

If you have a red-flowered currant (Ribes sanguineum), one of 21 varieties of lupin (Lupinus), or a tassel bush (Garrya ellipticca) in your garden, the chances are that its ancestor's seeds and foliage were collected and sent back to England by Douglas. Venture farther into the British landscape, and two of the mainstays of commercial forestry, the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and the grand fir (Abies grandis) were both introduced by Douglas. Of the latter, he wrote: "A forest of these trees is a spectacle too much for one man to see".

Douglas' travels started in 1825, when in the employ of the Horticultural Society of London (later the Royal Horticultural Society) he was chosen as a plant collector on the recommendation of William Hooker, regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University and future director of Kew Gardens. The professor noted Douglas's "singular abstemiousness" and backed him for the first plant-hunting expedition to this newfound territory of northwestern America, claimed both by the emergent United States and by the British Crown.

Botanical superlatives became commonplace in this region of America, which to this day has the tallest (coast redwood) and the biggest (Wellingtonia or sequoiadendron) trees in the world. Douglas' travels took him far and wide, and he became known to the American Indians as `the Grass Man' due to his obsessive interest in plants.


On 7 April 1825, when the Hudson's Bay Company ship William and Ann anchored in Baker's Bay near the mouth of the huge Columbia river, Douglas had spent eight-and-a-half months at sea. It was here that he first saw the giant fir that was to bear his name. At the end of his career, and life, nine years later, at the age of just 35, Douglas had introduced 215 new plants to Britain, winning great acclaim in the horticultural world. It has been said of him, "To no single individual is modern horticulture more indebted".

Following in the footsteps of the celebrated Grass Man almost two centuries later, it became rapidly apparent to me just how much physical effort Douglas had put into his plant collecting. I was in search of the original home of the noble fir, a magnificent blue-tinged tree which would fetch 20 guineas apiece in England after Douglas' seeds had been successfully propagated.

Following a relentless zig-zag track, I climbed uphill for eight hours through a dense covering of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menzesii), now the commonest tree in Oregon. As the ascent became a little less steep, the landscape opened up to reveal moss-covered boulders and shorter, hard-bitten little firs which, upon closer examination, turned out to be young Abies amabilis, named `the lovely fir' by Douglas.

But it was for the tree I saw a couple of kilometres later that Douglas reserved his most fervent veneration. A 24-metre symmetrical structure of grey branches and steel blue needles thrust out to catch the sun. "By far the finest ... could not cease to admire it," he wrote. He spent a night on a summit somewhere near here with native American guides. It took him 15 hours to reach it, and his ascent would have been vertical, with no paths to guide him up or down. …

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