Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Plant hunting in America

‘Nothing, as far as the eye could perceive, but mountains such as I was on, and many higher, some rugged beyond any description, striking the mind with horror blended with a sense of the wondrous works of the Almighty. The aerial tints of the snow, the heavenly azure of the solid glaciers, the rainbow-like hues of their thin broken fragments, the huge mossy icicles hanging from the perpendicular rocks with the snow sliding from the steep southern rocks with amazing velocity, producing a crash and grumbling like the shock of an earthquake, the echo of which resounding in the valley for several minutes.’ This is from a diary kept by the much admired Scottish botanist, David Douglas, born 220 years ago today. In a short life - he died in his mid-30s - he discovered hundreds of plant species in North America, and introduced many of them to Britain. His name has also been given to an important evergreen conifer - Douglas fir - as well as to scores of scientific names of plant and animal species.

Douglas was born in Scone, very near Perth, Scotland, on 25 June 1799, the second son of a stonemason. He attended a local school, and was then apprenticed, aged 11, to the gardener at Scone Palace, the seat of the Earl of Mansfield. After seven years in this position, he went to study at a college in Perth. In 1817 he moved to work in the gardens of Sir Robert Preston, at Valleyfield in Fife, where he was given access to an extensive botany library. Three years later Douglas took up a post in the Botanical Gardens of the University of Glasgow. Here, his potential was recognised by the Professor of Botany, Sir William Hooker, and the two mounted a number of botanical expeditions into the Highlands together.

In 1823, Douglas was recommended by Hooker to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) for an expedition to America to collect plants. He spent the latter half of that year in Philadelphia. The RHS were pleased enough with his notes and seeds to send him back, with sponsorship by Hudson’s Bay Company, this time to the Pacific northwest. He arrived in Fort Vancouver in April 1825, and travelled inland to Hudson Bay, which he reached in 1827.

In 1830, Douglas returned for a third trip, to explore California and the Fraser River region, stopping in Hawaii on the way. He returned to Hawaii in December 1833, intending to remain there only a few months, but he was still there in July when he met his death, being gored in a trap by a wild bull. He was only 35. Douglas is credited with discovering many new animal and plant species, not least the Douglas fir which bears his name. 
He introduced several hundred plants to Great Britain and hence to Europe; and eighty species of plants and animals have douglasii in their scientific names. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, Discovering Lewis & Clark, the Oregon Encyclopaedia, or The Douglas Archives.

In 1914, the RHS finally published, what it called, Journal kept by David Douglas during his travels in North America 1823-1827 together with a particular description of thirty-three species of American oaks and eighteen species of pinus. The book, freely available at Internet Archive, is a medley of journals, letters, memoir material, and scientific lists of species with descriptions. There are diaries from each of the three different trips Douglas made to America, but it is the journal of his second trip that takes up the bulk of the book (more than 200 pages of 350 in total).

Here is how the RHS secretary, W. Wilks, explains, in a preface, why it took so long to publish Douglas’s diaries:

‘Many causes have contributed to the delay which has taken place in the publication of the Diaries of David Douglas’s journeys on behalf of the Royal Horticultural Society :—
1. The handwriting is nowhere easy to read, and in places is most difficult, occasionally almost if not quite impossible.
2. In the course of nearly one hundred years the ink has faded and become in places very hard to decipher.
3. After the Diary of his journey in North Western America had been prepared for the press and set up in type, a second manuscript was discovered which was at first sight taken to be a duplicate, but which on closer examination was found to contain a great deal of additional information. It had therefore to be compared word for word with the Diary and the additions inserted in their proper places.
4. All the botanical names mentioned have been very carefully looked up by Mr. H. R. Hutchinson and the name given to the plant in Index Kewensis or by other later authority is quoted at the bottom of the page with a reference to the author responsible for it.
5. Last, but by no means least, the work was entrusted to the Secretary of the Society and to Mr. Hutchinson, the Librarian, each of whom had already more work in hand than he could conveniently compass, and only occasional spare time could be given to a work which had already waited nearly one hundred years for publication before it was committed to their charge.’

The following extracts are all from the first journal, except for the last which is from the second.

3 June 1823
‘LONDON: left Charing Cross by coach for Liverpool. Morning very pleasant; had rained through the night, country very fine for seventeen miles from the metropolis; found during time of changing horses Conferva egerops (Ball) confer. Beautiful fields at Woburn Abbey tastefully laid out and divided by hedgerows in which are planted Horse-chestnuts (Aesculus Hippocastanum) at regular distances, ail in full flower; had a very imposing appearance. Menyanthes nymphoides, for the first time I ever saw it in its natural state. Northampton at 2.30 o’clock p.m., rested 25 minutes; reached Lancaster quarter to 10 p.m., took supper, started again half past 10, rain during the night; very cold. Arrived at Liverpool 4 o’clock afternoon. After calling on Messrs. Monal & Woodward and learning that the Ann Maria of New York was to sail the following morning, in which a passage had been taken for me, I arranged my business as to my departure and made for Botanic Garden. Mr. Shepherd received me in the most handsome manner; showed me all his treasures (of which not a few were from North America).’ 

6 June 1823
‘On board at 9 o’clock A.M. in tow of two power steam-boats, which left 15 miles down the channel; we made but little progress, wind being rather contrary.’

2 August 1823
‘The ship this morning was all in an uproar, in consequence of a horse, which one of the passengers had, being looked on as dying; it cost him £200 in England, and after troubled passage the poor man lost his horse. At 12 o’clock saw light at Sandy Hook.’

3 August 1823
‘Four o’clock A.M. saw more of the New World. Every face seemed to feel glad, and at 7 A.M. took a pilot on board; at 10 passed the floating light lately erected, the Captain of which came on board of the Ann Maria; 4 o’clock passed the Nourain waspe, and the other forts on the right and left; half-past 4 cast anchor and considered ourselves at land; 5 o’clock boarded by the Health Officer, who signified that fourteen days of quarantine was requisite in consequence of small-pox; at 6 o’clock went on shore on Staten; returned to the vessel at 7.’

11 August 1823
‘Early this morning I went to the vegetable market, the Fulton. It had a beautiful appearance, beet of superior variety and fine carrots, raised in this country; I observed a very great deficiency of cauliflower, indeed they were miserably poor; onions were fine, mostly red; the immense supply of melons and cucumbers - the latter of which, however, were not so fine as may be expected and appeared for the most part to be the same as the short prickly ones cultivated in England - the melons were fine. An abundant supply of early apples, pears, peaches - the two former were fine, but the peaches looked rather bad, being ripened immaturely and the trees being sickly; immense varieties of squashes or gourds, plums, early damsons, a great supply of pineapples from the West Indies, and cocoanuts. I observed a fine head of Musa sapientum which weighed 40 lb. At 8 o’clock this morning we set off for Flushing and visited the establishment of Mr. Prince. I found him a man of but moderate liberality; he has some good specimens of Magnolia, of Berberis Aquifolium, a few European plants, common shrubs and herb plants. Indeed on the whole I must confess to be somewhat disappointed, for his extensive catalogue and some talk had heightened my idea of it; but most of his ground is covered over with weeds. I was much pleased with the beautiful villas on the banks of the Sound; saw people employed in preparing their operations for diving to the Hussar, a British frigate taken during the late war.’

1 January 1824
‘On the morning of the New Year, I had the gratification of seeing the rocky shores of Cornwall and with a continued steady wind came to an anchorage off Dover on Saturday morning.’


1 May 1826
‘This morning our fire that was kindled on the snow had sunk into a hole 6 feet deep, making a natural kitchen. Minimum heat 2°, maximum 44°, on the highest part of the big hill. Started at daybreak, finding the snow deeper and the trees gradually diminish towards the summit; laborious to ascend. Went frequently off the path in consequence of not seeing the marks on the trees, being covered with the snow. Reached the top at ten, three miles, where we made a short stay to rest. Course north-east. Descended in the same direction and came on the river which we left two days before. Passed in the valley two small level spots clear of wood and one low point of wood of small trees, Pinus nigra and P. Banksiana, where we camped at midday, being unable to proceed further from the deep soft snow. Progress seven miles. Mr. E. killed on the height of land a most beautiful male partridge, a curious species; small; neck and breast jet black; back of a lighter hue; belly and under the tail grey, mottled with pure white; beak black; above the eye bright scarlet, which it raises on each side of the head, screening the few feathers on the crown; resembles a small well-crested domesticated fowl; leaves of Pinus nigra in the crop. This is the sort of bird mentioned to me by Mr. McLeod as inhabiting the higher parts of Peace and Smoky Rivers. This, however, is not so large as described. Perhaps there may be two varieties. Said also to be found in Western Caledonia. This being the first I have seen, could not resist the temptation of preserving it, although mutilated in the legs and in any circumstances little chance of being able to carry it, let alone being in a good state. The flesh of the partridge remarkably tender when new killed, like game that has been killed several days; instead of being white, of a darkish cast. After breakfast at one o’clock, being as I conceive on the highest part of the route, I became desirous of ascending one of the peaks, and accordingly I set out alone on snowshoes to that on the left hand or west side, being to all appearance the highest. The labour of ascending the lower part, which is covered with pines, is great beyond description, sinking on many occasions to the middle. Half-way up vegetation ceases entirely, not so much as a vestige of moss or lichen on the stones. Here I found it less laborious as I walked on the hard crust. One-third from the summit it becomes a mountain of pure ice, sealed far over by Nature’s hand as a momentous work of Nature’s God. The height from its base may be about 5500 feet: timber, 2750 feet; a few mosses and lichen, 500 more; 1000 feet of perpetual snow; the remainder, towards the top 1250, as I have said, glacier with a thin covering of snow on it. The ascent took me five hours; descending only one and a quarter. Places where the descent was gradual, I tied my shoes together, making them carry me in turn as a sledge. Sometimes I came down at one spell 500 to 700 feet in the space of one minute and a half. I remained twenty minutes, my thermometer standing at 18°; night closing fast in on me, and no means of fire, I was reluctantly forced to descend. The sensation I felt is beyond what I can give utterance to. Nothing, as far as the eye could perceive, but mountains such as I was on, and many higher, some rugged beyond any description, striking the mind with horror blended with a sense of the wondrous works of the Almighty. The aerial tints of the snow, the heavenly azure of the solid glaciers, the rainbow-like hues of their thin broken fragments, the huge mossy icicles hanging from the perpendicular rocks with the snow sliding from the steep southern rocks with amazing velocity, producing a crash and grumbling like the shock of an earthquake, the echo of which resounding in the valley for several minutes. On the rocks of the wood were Menziesia caerulea; Andromeda hypnoides; Lycopodium alpinum; L. sp. unknown to me; dead stems of Gentiana nivalis; Epilobium sp., small; Salix herbacea; Empetrum nigrum, fruit in a good state of preservation underneath the snow; Juncus triglumis; J. biglumis, with a few Musci, Jungermanniae and lichens.’

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