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David Douglas, the gentle Scottish plant hunter

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Nature, Plants on Tuesday, 4 February 2014

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This edited article about David Douglas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 540 published on 20 May 1972.

David Douglas,  picture, image, illustration

David Douglas went searching in Canada for nature's secrets; during one of his expeditions he was surrounded by a group of heavily-armed Indians

The people of Scone were not to blame for failing to recognise in young David Douglas a person destined to become one of its most celebrated citizens. He was constantly playing truant from school or disturbing the peace of the village with all manner of high-spirited mischief.

“Something must be done about that lad of yours or he’ll come to no good end,” the schoolmaster told young David’s father. “His head is stuffed with nothing but fancy notions about flowers, plants, birds and such-like. He’ll not earn his living that way, Mr Douglas. In my opinion there’s only one thing to do and that’s to send him to Mr Wilson’s school in Perth. If Wilson can’t put some sense into his head, nobody can.”

The school at Perth was three miles from Scone, which meant that young David had a six-mile walk every day. But instead of being dismayed by this daily trek, the lad was highly delighted, for it gave him the chance to make new discoveries about nature and her ways. What his pockets contained on returning home from Perth each day was anybody’s guess. It might be anything from a rare wild flower to a wriggling grass snake!

It would seem that the formidable Mr Wilson had no more success in taming the “wild” boy of Scone than his previous schoolmaster.

In desperation his father took him away from school at the age of eleven and apprenticed him as a gardener’s boy in the nursery garden at Scone Palace. Young David’s joy knew no bounds. Here he would be working among flowers and plants, learning their secrets and all the time adding to his knowledge of the wonder-world of nature.

In old Mr Beattie, the head gardener, he found a friend indeed and the old Scot would often take the lad’s side in his high-spirited disputes with the other gardening lads, saying he “preferred a deevil to a dolt.”

There was no holding the “bad” boy of Scone now that he had found himself on the path he wished to follow. He read every book on trees and plants he could lay hands upon. It was also about this time he came across a copy of “Robinson Crusoe.” The story fascinated him and sparked off a burning desire to seek adventure in strange, far-off lands, looking for plants, trees and flowers such as the gardeners of Britain had never set eyes upon.

At the age of 19 David Douglas joined the staff of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Glasgow. His knowledge and enthusiasm very soon attracted the attention of the celebrated botanist, Professor William Hooker. He singled him out to accompany him on several botanical excursions into the wilds of Scotland.

One morning the great man called Douglas into his office and told him that the Horticultural Society of London (now known as the Royal Horticultural Society) were looking for a field collector to work in overseas countries hunting for new and rare species of plants and trees.

“I think you’re the very man for the job, Douglas. If you feel like applying for the post you can count on me to back up your application,” said the Professor.

A few weeks later the great news came – the Society’s choice for the post was David Douglas!

On June 3rd, 1823, David Douglas set sail from Liverpool bound for Port Vancouver (now Vancouver, Washington State), a Hudson Bay outpost on the Columbia River. It was the start of ten years of collecting, during which time he walked, canoed, snow-shoed or rode on horseback across some 10,000 miles of unmapped territory, introducing into Britain more plants and seeds than any other scientist before or since.

His first shipment of seeds and specimens to London created a great sensation. Included in that collection were the seeds of the giant of the forest that bears his name – the noble Douglas fir.

Douglas presented a strange sight as he hacked his way through dense forest or toiled up steep mountain slopes. He dressed in a manner similar to his hero, Robinsoe Crusoe, with deer-skin trousers and a floppy straw hat woven for him by an Indian girl.

On his back he carried his heavy box of specimens, his preserving powder, drying paper and scientific instruments. The gun he slung over his shoulder was mostly used for shooting down fir cones which were beyond his reach.

It was when shooting down cones from a giant fir that Douglas had one of his most hair-raising experiences. The sound of his shots brought a party of hostile-looking Indians out of the trees. They were heavily armed and their bodies were daubed with red earth. In silence they squatted down and glared at Douglas. The young botanist faced them with a gun in one hand and a pistol in the other. They faced each other thus for ten minutes – the most spine-chilling ten minutes the plant-hunter had ever experienced. Unable to stand the tension longer, Douglas fumbled in his pack and handed round a gift of tobacco to each Indian and to his intense relief the Indians slowly backed away and disappeared into the forest!

During the course of his travels the opportunity arose for Douglas to visit Robinson Crusoe’s island, Juan Fernandez. Here he collected some seventy plants, including ferns, lobelia, escallonia and verbena.

With every shipment of specimens to London the fame of the “wild” son of Scone increased and honours were showered upon him from societies the world over.

Today, there can be scarcely a park or garden in Britain not made more beautiful by trees or flowers first brought home by Douglas of the Fir – lupins, phlox, Californian poppy, yellow globe tulips, red flowering currant, clematis, the beautiful Sitka spruce and hundreds more of our best-loved trees and flowers.

Douglas’ tragic death in 1834 at the early age of 35 has always been something of a mystery. He had set out from Honolulu to explore the volcanoes of Hawaii. Although warned that three cattle traps – pits lightly covered with brushwood – lay further along the path he was taking, by some mysterious means Douglas fell, or was pushed, into one of the pits containing a live bull and he was gored to death.

A world-wide appeal resulted in a memorial being set up in the churchyard at Scone.

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