Friday, November 3, 2017

David Douglas in America

I have probably stood on the exact same ground as David Douglas, the intrepid botanical explorer who was sent to the west coast of North America in 1827 by the Horticultural Society of London. He was a tough little Scotsman who was known to trek up to 50 miles per day...on forest paths in low-tech footwear. If one could trace 100% of his entire movements, and mine, surely we crossed paths somewhere, but I'll admit that after 10 miles per day I am entirely bushed.

Pseudotsuga menziesii

Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Compacta'

Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Fastigiata'

Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Glauca'

You could say that Douglas was in the right place at the right time for botanical discovery, and if he never existed someone else would have shortly thereafter made the discoveries. All plant explorers are competitive, and Douglas was forever worried if he would be given due credit for his labours, and the reason for his insecurity was because he was of a lower class than his high-pocket employers. I wish the paranoid Mr. Douglas could come back for a day, perhaps to visit me, so that I could assure him that history, especially horticultural history, holds him in a high place of honor. Take Pseudotsuga menziesii for example, the tree that is still called the “Douglas fir,” wouldn't he be amazed that nurserymen have selected dozens of forms – weeping, dwarf, narrow, extra blue etc.?

Pinus ponderosa

Pinus ponderosa 'Dixie'

William Hooker
Douglas introduced quite a number of conifers besides the Douglas fir, so many that he wrote to his patron Sir William Hooker, “You must think I manufacture pines at my pleasure.” It must have been a pleasure when he first saw Pinus ponderosa, now commonly called the “Western yellow pine,” but then it is the most widely distributed pine species in North America. He first encountered it in 1826 in eastern Washington near present-day Spokane, but it took Douglas three more years before he identified it as a new species (and not as Pinus resinosa). He coined the name P. ponderosa because of its heavy wood.* There are a number of subspecies, including the Pacific which are native west of the Cascade Mountains. A subspecies from the eastern portion of its range would not do well in western Oregon unless grafted onto a pine species such as P. sylvestris. There are “dwarf” cultivars of P. ponderosa but they seldom impress me – it seems they are forever shedding needles, and most eventually grow too large for garden use. On full-size specimens it is the trunk that is most impressive, with cinnamon and orange plates that are divided by black cracks, and a dry and sparse climate seems to produce the most colorful trunks.

*Also, the size of the species is ponderous. From pondus, the Latin word for “weight,” hence ponder, to “mentally weigh.”

Pinus lambertiana

Aylmer Bourke Lambert
Another great and ponderous Douglas discovery was Pinus lambertiana, the “Sugar pine.” Of course he wasn't the first to see it – that would be the native Americans – but he saw the large seed collected as food for trade. Native guides led him to a location in 1827 where he could see the actual trees, and as Douglas was shooting cones out of the canopies with his rifle he attracted a not-so-friendly band of Indians. After a tense stand-off Douglas grabbed his cones and ran for his life. The “Sugar pine” is so-named because a sweet liquid from the heartwood has been used in the past as a substitute for sugar. It is the tallest of all pines, up to 75 m. (246 feet) in the wild, and some of the tallest in the world grow in the same area as the giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum). I remember during my first visit to the Calaveras Grove in California that the pines actually diminished the grandeur of the redwoods. Not only is it the tallest, it is also the most massive of all pines, and its cones are the longest of any conifer. Douglas named the species in honor of English botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert (1761-1842) who was one of the first fellows of the Linnean Society, the type of bigshot that Douglas felt compelled to impress.

Pinus sabiniana

Joseph Sabine
Dr. Forrest Bump
Pinus sabiniana, the “Digger pine,” was another Douglas introduction (1832), and he named it to honor another Englishman of importance, Joseph Sabine, secretary of the Horticultural Society of London. The common name came from the observation that native Americans “dug” around the base of the tree for its seeds. P. sabiniana is native to California from sea level to about 4,000' in elevation in the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges foothills. It has adapted to dry hot summers, often in poor rocky soil, but it also thrives in the luxuriant confines of the Flora Wonder Arboretum. The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs (2014) describes it as “A remarkable pine....A medium-sized tree usually of gaunt open habit, with straggly branches.” I would agree with that description, but it's odd to read “remarkable” and “straggly” used together. One of my horticultural mentors, the late Dr. Bump of Forest Grove, Oregon, had a couple of old P. sabinianas in his wonderful garden. He described them as “perfect shade structures” for his extensive Rhododendron collection. The roots didn't demand too much moisture while the airy tops provided some respite from the blazing summer sun.

The former Pinus sabiniana

A nice P. sabiniana* was growing in the corner of Harleman Park, Cornelius, Oregon, only a couple of miles away from Flora Farm. One day last spring I drove past and noticed a crew and park department trucks parked next to it. The next day I was shocked that the healthy tree was entirely removed and the stump ground to sawdust. I immediately knew the reason, and later a call to city hall confirmed it, that the tree was cut down because it would eventually (but not yet) produce cones – heavy, yes – that would pose a danger to park-goers. I suggested that lightning posed an equal threat, but that wasn't the kind of citizen involvement that the government employees were looking for.

*Surprisingly Hillier and a few others spell the species sabineana which is a violation of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. In that Code, Recommendation 60.2c states that personal names that are already in Latin or Greek, or those that have a well-established Latinized form can remain Latinized in species epithets. In other words, Sabine's name is not "correctable" and therefore P. sabiniana is the proper name.

Pinus coulteri

Thomas Coulter
Pinus coulteri, the “Big cone pine,” is another California species that is related to P. sabiniana, except the former is a fuller tree with thicker needles. What both species have in common are their large, heavy (up to 2 kg) similarly-shaped cones. Isolated groves of P. coulteri occur from the San Francisco Bay area down to northern Baja, California. I have seen older trees in Portland, Oregon, in a climate one zone more benign than at my nursery where I have not succeeded. Other than the huge cones I find P. coulteri rather boring, kind of like an “Austrian pine,” Pinus nigra, but P. coulteri did win the RHS's Award of Garden Merit. It was Dr. Thomas Coulter (1793-1843), an Irish physician, botanist and explorer, who first discovered P. coulteri, but it was David Douglas who first introduced it to Europe. Scottish botanist David Don (1799-1841) was the first to describe and name P. coulteri, as he did for other conifer discoveries at the time (Pinus bracteata, Abies bracteata, Abies grandis and Taxodium sempervirens – now Sequoia sempervirens – and more). It was also David Don who named the orchid genus Pleione in 1825.

Tsuga heterophylla
Tsuga heterophylla 'Thorsen'

So, Dr. Coulter discovered P. coulteri, but David Douglas introduced it. In the case of Tsuga heterophylla, the “Western hemlock,” Douglas discovered it but another explorer, John Jeffrey, introduced it (in 1851). Discover, introduce? – who can keep track of all that? Well, one should give credit where credit is due. One of the most useful and spectacular of all conifer cultivars is Xanthocyparis nootkatensis 'Green Arrow'. It was discovered and named by Gordon Bentham, but I introduced it (only) because he died too soon. In the case of the Douglas fir, Archibald Menzies discovered it about 1792, but it took another 35 years before Douglas introduced it. What is interesting about the western hemlock is that the majority of gardeners and conifer collectors would consider it to be more beautiful than its East Coast counterpart, Tsuga canadensis, but there are only a handful of T. heterophylla cultivars and hundreds for T. canadensis.

Abies grandis

David Douglas was in the right place at the right time to discover and introduce a number of the true firs (Abies). Not surprisingly Abies grandis is the “Giant fir,” and it can grow to 70m (230 ft.) in height. Douglas collected it in 1831 from specimens along the Columbia River. I don't know how to describe the foliage other than to say the needles are dark green and lie flat along the twigs. If in doubt about its identity crush a needle and it will pleasantly smell of tangerines. We used A. grandis as a Christmas tree one year and I was enthused to quiz all friends and family to see if they could identify the odor. “Dish-washing soap” was one guess.

Abies amabilis 'Spreading Star'

Abies procera 'Glauca'

Two more West Coast species that Douglas found are A. amabilis (Latin for “beautiful”) and A. procera, the “Noble fir.” I can distinguish one from the other – usually – except when I can't, as when they hybridize. The noble fir makes an excellent Christmas tree due to its stiff blue branches and “alpine” look and it has been our tree of choice for many years. A. amabilis would work too, but it is less encountered for such purpose, and maybe that's because the needles don't remain as long. Anyway, both species have wonderful garden cultivars, or just plant out the full-sized trees if you have room. I have discussed Abies procera 'Glauca Prostrata' before, that my specimen became apically agitated and now soars to about 35' tall. According to Hillier their original grew low and flat, originating in their Shroner Wood Nursery in about 1895. Abies amabilis 'Procumbens' and 'Spreading Star' are two cultivars that behave themselves and stay low, and a specimen of the latter is about 8' wide by 2' tall in 30 years at the lower end of our Long Road section.

Arbutus menziesii

Arbutus menziesii

Arbutus menziesii

Archibald Menzies
Thus far I have championed David Douglas and his conifers, but he also collected evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs. As with the Douglas fir, Archibald Menzies discovered the “Pacific Madrone,” but it was Douglas who introduced it in 1827. Arbutus menziesii is a fantastic species in the wild – I have it on both of my properties – but it is difficult to establish in the garden. Nevertheless it won an Award of Merit in 1926. Its trunk rivals any Eucalyptus or Stewartia for beauty when the smooth reddish-brown bark peels in late summer to reveal green tones. White urn-shaped flowers are conspicuous in early summer and are then followed by orange berries. There is an area in Seattle called Magnolia, and it is its second largest neighborhood. Magnolia's name was a misnomer – a boner – which was named by Captain George Davidson of the U.S. Coast Survey in 1856 who mistook the madrona for true magnolias.

It has been one of my life-long observations that Arbutus menziesii trees are particularly susceptible to low-life vandalism, as males – women would never do it! – feel compelled to carve crude graffiti onto the trunks. We receive messages such as “Joey loves Crystal” inside a misshapen heart, “Skate or die” where I would encourage the latter or “Jimi Hendricks rocks!” – to which I would agree, but why disfigure the exquisite trunk? A couple of years ago I took a photo of a large, beautifully-barked madrona growing on a hill just 5 miles from the nursery. It was sitting along a gravel hick-road that services trailer houses and welfare residents before the road descends into the relative opulence of Cornelius, Oregon. When Seth was processing the photo for our plant library he detected something which I missed – and he zoomed in to discover that "Bill" had previously made his acquaintance with the tree.

Mahonia aquifolium

Thomas Nuttall
David Douglas probably tripped many times as he scrambled through our woods filled with Mahonia aquifolium, indeed our “Pacific Northwest fetterbush.” The “Oregon grape” is ubiquitous and uneventful to denizens of this region, but it must have been a choice introduction when Douglas sent it to England in 1823. Of low habit with bright yellow flowers followed by (somewhat) edible purple-black fruits, it will thrive in many garden soils...whether grown in sun or shade. One of Buchholz Nursery's first cash crops was the cultivar (or form) 'Compacta' and we grew thousands of rooted cuttings for the local landscape market. At some point we discontinued, but I honestly don't remember why. I still see the selection used locally, like in the parking lots of malls and supermarkets and even in the “landscape” in front of my local bank in Forest Grove. Douglas introduced the species in 1823 and it was described and named by Thomas Nuttall, the English botanist who lived and worked in America from 1808 until 1841. The genus name honors Bernard McMahon, an Irish-American horticulturist from Philadelphia who took care of plants collected on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

David Douglas
D. Douglas, T. Nuttall, B. McMahon are all mentioned in this blog, and though they were born foreigners – exotics – they all contributed greatly to American botany and horticulture. Though his life was rather short-lived, I'm thankful that Douglas had a chance to make his mark in America. Who knows how much more he would have accomplished had ne not fallen – or was pushed – into a bull pit in Hawaii at the age of 35 where he was gored to death. He fathered no children; his only known “romantic” encounter was when a local Northwest Indian chief provided his 14-year-old daughter to Douglas. The chief's ploy was to gain status amongst his chiefly peers by using his daughter to form an alliance with a white man. She visited his tent one night but left running away and screaming in terror five minutes later. No white man from the Douglas camp knew just what occurred. Douglas was certainly mum because he didn't want his serious scientific reputation sullied in England by consorting with the American natives, even though all of the other European men did it. It is a bittersweet story, and I suppose that I would have rather stayed in the Pacific Northwest, stewing fern fronds and picking huckleberries with my native maiden, and to hell with the pretentious lords back in London.

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