Today I was walking in a local woodland when I came across a magnificent Douglas Fir tree. These trees are not native to the UK but the West Coast of North America, where they have been known to grow to over 85 metres high.
The Douglas Fir, as it is commonly known, is named in honour of David Douglas, a famous Scottish plant hunter who tragically and famously died in Hawai’i. Having fallen into an animal pit, to his dismay, he found it was already occupied by a wild bull who was reluctant to share such a confined space and promptly gored Douglas to death (not in anyway similar to Winnie the Pooh and the Heffalump). Such a demise in no way detracted from David Douglas’s enormous stamina, energy and legacy as a famous and important plant hunter who introduced numerous North American species to Britain and Europe, many of which to this day are both of horticultural significance and, of commercial forestry value.
David Douglas had a brother who was Clerk of Works for the Duke of Buccleugh at Drumlanrig Castle. He received seed of the Douglas Fir from his brother and successfully germinated it. Today you can visit the grounds of the castle and follow the plant trail. You will come across a magnificent Douglas Fir that is understood to be from this original batch of seed. From all accounts it is not merely a notable tree in terms of scale, size and significance, but of genuine historical value.
The naming of plants is perceived by some as a process of complication or concern. This is because any plant is given a common name but also a botanic (scientific) name in Latin. Indeed, it is the latter that almost invariably causes consternation and tongue-twisting confusion. However, with regards to plant classification, the concern is the common name and not the scientific. The reason for this is that a common name, is just that, “common”, whereas the Latin name – always a two word combination – is a fixed name based on a dead language.
Common names are often descriptive and memorable for a given place, time or individual, but particularly of a given place. There is, though, a tenuous overlap in the naming of plants using the scientific name (known as the binomial system, created by Carl Linneaus circa. 18th Century) by using terminology that is either descriptive by geography, morphology, colour, scent, size or in honour of a known individual. The latter criteria is certainly frequently used. It is rare for a common name and Latin name of a given plant of a given species to reflect on two individuals in the honour of one who finds and the other who successfully introduces the plant in question.
Arguably one of the best examples of such a unique occurrence is by common name, the Douglas Fir, and its Latin name Pseudotsuga menziesii. Archibald Menzies was another Scottish plant hunter – he who found the Douglas Fir and recorded it but didn’t bring back any seed or specimens to the UK. Menzie’s contribution is recognised through its botanical name.
The naming of this tree in honour of two Scottish individuals is not the only charming information of note. Through native and indigenous stories west coast North America, it is believed by some that the devastating forest fires in ages long ago results in the narrative I’m about to recount. However, for those of you who are keen readers of cultural stories of how life on earth first began or was in peril, you will also know a great flood is a further common theme. Accordingly,what I am about to recount relates to the encroachment of fire and not water. I leave it to you to chose which is the most evocative but personally I’ve chosen rising water levels…
There was a time on the West Coast of North America when it rained and rained and rained to the point where all the animals who had previously got to high ground found it wasn’t enough and needed to get into the tallest of the tall trees. Well, it was the cheeky mice who took full advantage of this situation. They tried to eat and gather as much of the spare food that was left when the animals went into the trees. What they failed to realise was just how quickly the water was rising. They would have drowned had it not been for the generosity of the Douglas Fir trees who lowered their branches down to the water for the mice to scamper up and through. But of course the Douglas Fir trees were by this stage almost like a hotel bursting at the seams. So many different animals were sheltering in its boughs. And so the mice squeezed themselves into the only remaining spaces they could find which were in the cones. And we know this to be the case because, to this very day, when looking at a Douglas Fir cone, we can see the tail and the hind feet of the mice still winking at us. Look carefully at the photo below to see them…