A wry view of life for the world-weary

What A Way To Go – Part Twenty One


David Douglas (1799 1834)

Continuing our occasional series of unusual (and amusing) ways to meet one’s maker.

The early 19th century was a boom period for what might be colloquially termed plant hunters, chaps who sailed off to newly discovered (at least from a British perspective) lands in the quest for new and exotic species of flora. One such intrepid individual was the Scottish born botanist, David Douglas.

After working as a garden apprentice at Scone Palace near Edinburgh he studied under the then Professor of Botany at Glasgow University, William Jackson Hooker, who took the tyro under his wing, cultivated his interest and recommended him to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in London.

Under the RHS’ auspices Douglas made three trips to North America, the first in 1823, the second and most successful from 1824 to 1827 and his final (and fatal) trip from October 1829 until July 1832.

The second expedition was Douglas’ crowning glory, sent by the RHS to the Pacific Northwest. During the spring of 1826 he encountered a rather formidable obstacle in his way, Mount Brown. Demonstrating the British bulldog spirit and the derring-do that won an empire Douglas climbed over it, becoming in the process the first white mountaineer in North America.

Douglas introduced the eponymous fir into cultivation in 1827 – spooky that he should have found a tree bearing his name but there we are. He was also responsible for bringing into cultivation a number of other pines including the Western White Pine, the Ponderosa, the Monterey and the Grand and Noble Firs. These trees had a transforming effect on the British countryside and the indigenous timber industry. Douglas didn’t restrict his attention to conifers, bringing to the attention of the British gardening public the flowering currant, salal, lupin, penstemon and California poppy. So prolific was he in his plant hunting that he introduced around 240 plant species to Britain and worried that “[people] will begin to think that I manufacture pines at my pleasure”.

Of course, in those days to get to the North West Pacific coast by ship meant going the long way round (no Panama canal then) and so Hawaii was a convenient and, doubtless, congenial stopping place. Douglas’ first visit there was in 1830 when he became only the second European to climb the volcano, Mauna Loa.

On his return journey in 1834 he stopped off again in Hawaii and this time decided to climb Mauna Kea. It was while doing that that he met his maker. The exact circumstances of his death are still shrouded in some mystery. Some think that the escaped convict Edward Gurney killed him as Douglas had stayed in his hut and had been relieved of some of the money he was carrying. Gurney brought his body back to civilisation. Gurney’s story which is now generally accepted as the real version of events was that the intrepid explorer stumbled into a pit-trap and was unable to get out. Worse was to follow when a bull stumbled into the same trap, crushing and goring the poor botanist.

Truly a sad end to a great man. A monument stands on the site where he died and it is named Ka lua kauka or the Doctor’s Pit.


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