Over 200 years ago a young Scottish botanist began discovering a veritable bonanza of new plants and animals in the Pacific Northwest that would soon make him and the region famous. David Douglas discovered 650 different plants from the area and sent samples back to Europe, some of which now bear his namesake. The Douglas Squirrel, the Snow douglasia and the Douglas fir are just a few examples.
The journeys of this man with an insatiable curiosity is shared in a new book by local author Jack Nisbet. The book,”David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work” compliments Nisbet’s earlier book on Douglas, “The Collector.”
Nisbet was on hand at the Colville Library on April 17 to share more about Douglas and other information Nisbet learned while reading Douglas’ journals, talking with native people from the area and reviewing historical documents.
“David Douglas was born around 1800 in Scotland, the son of a stonemason. Douglas was terrible in school but at that time, there was an answer for that. You could become an apprentice. He began an apprenticeship at a manor house learning horticulture and how to manage a kitchen garden,” Nisbet related. “Growing plants was an age and gender neutral occupation and from there Douglas got a job at the Glasgow greenhouse. As the British Empire was continuing to grow, botany was the most important science. The British were minting money by moving plants around the world.”
In 1825, Douglas made a trek to the Pacific Northwest to explore what kinds of herbaceous wonders the area had to offer. He made a stop at Fort Colville in 1826.
“You can literally trace Douglas’ journeys by tracing them back plant by plant,” said Nisbet.
One of Douglas’ goals was to get viable seeds back to England, instead of just pressed specimens.
“In order to do this Douglas had to take extreme care to ensure that the people hauling his cargo back to Europe were going to be very careful to not get even a splash of seawater on the specimens,” Nisbet explained.
The extra care paid off, as specimens sent back to Scotland and Ireland quickly gained appreciation.
“In Scotland and Ireland the main timber is now the Sitka Spruce that was exported from the Pacific Northwest,” said Nisbet. “Douglas was interested in exporting it because he noted that some of the same conditions in Scotland and Ireland were present in the Northwest. The Sitka Spruce likes northern exposure, thin soil and can stand up to wind, so it was a good fit.”
The Western Larch, commonly called a Tamarack, also gained popularity as Douglas observed it was “straight with corkscrew bark and would be good for ship’s masts.”
Nisbet highlighted how Douglas’ assessment of plant species and their value was very characteristic of the time.
“Douglas might look at a flower and say ‘this would look good in my backyard’ or admire the countryside in Stevens County with its plains and stands of pines because it was like an English lawn. This is because it was a landscape managed by fire and so had a very orderly appearance,” Nisbet said.
But while Douglas was admiring the aesthetics of the area’s flora and fauna, he also tapped into the deeper uses and possibilities for the plants, including their ability to be a food source.
“Douglas learned a great deal about what plants to eat and when from the native wives of the fur traders he stayed with,” Nisbet explained. “He learned how to eat camas, bitterroot and lichen cakes.”
Eventually Douglas’ natural curiosity would culminate in his unfortunate death at 35. He died in 1834 while exploring the mountain Mauna Kea in Hawaii when he fell into a pit trap and was possibly crushed by a bullock that fell into the same trap.
MAC exhibit open through August 25
Those who would like to get a more tangible idea of Douglas’ adventures can attend a new exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane. The exhibit features several interactive exhibits and chronicles the challenges and discoveries Douglas experienced. For more information, visit www.northwestmuseum.org or call 509-456-3931. The MAC is located in the Historic Browne’s Addition Neighborhood,2316 W First Ave., Spokane.
By Jamie Henneman, Special to The Independent
In this photo: Nisbet speaks to full house at Colville Public Library on April 17.