Magazine article The Spectator

Scot with Courage

Magazine article The Spectator

Scot with Courage

Article excerpt

I have a particularly soft spot for David Douglas, the l9th-century plant hunter: because he was the best kind of clever, energetic and adventurous Scot, in the John Buchan mould; because we share a birthday (his bi-centennial is celebrated this year); and because he found and described one of the all-time great shrubs, Dendromecon rigida.

Of course, it is not for a slightly tender, glaucous-leaved, yellow-flowered, fragrant shrub, however lovely, on which Douglas's reputation rests. Rather it is on the introduction of a number of invaluable garden plants -Mahonia aquifolium, the flowering currant, lupin, penstemon, oenothera, erigeron, clarkia, and eschscholzia - together with a clutch of hardy coniferous trees the Douglas fir, the Noble fir, the Grand fir, the Sitka spruce -- whose commercial and ornamental attributes have ensured that they are widely planted in this country. It is no exaggeration to say that Douglas's collections have succeeded in radically changing the landscape of upland Britain. Not everyone will be happy that those trees are conifers, from the aesthetic point of view, but their value as timber is indisputable. Moreover, in Australia and New Zealand, the vast majority of planted timber is composed of the Monterey pine (Pinus radiata), another Douglas introduction.

David Douglas was born in the village of Scone in Perthshire on 25 June 1799. He showed an early interest in natural history and, at the age of 11, was employed as a garden boy by the Earl of Mansfield at Scone Palace. By 1820, he had studied so hard, and acquired so much experience, that he was taken on at the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow, where he soon impressed William Hooker, Professor of Botany at Glasgow, one of the great botanists of his day. Hooker recommended him to the Horticultural Society of London (now the RHS) as a plant collector. And so it was that, in 1823, he travelled to the eastern states of North America and, the following year, via Cape Horn, to the Pacific North West. He stayed there for two and a half years, living among native North Americans, and travelling vast distances on foot or in canoe. In 1829, he set sail again from England for Hawaii, and from thence to California, on an expedition which was to last five years. On more than one occasion his canoe was overturned and he lost seeds, plant specimens and instruments.

Eventually he returned to Hawaii but was killed in July 1834, when, on the slopes of the volcano Mauna Kea, he fell into a trap for wild cattle which already contained a bull. …

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