Rafinesque and Douglas

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photo: closeup of cone bracts
Cone bracts on big-cone Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa (Vasey) Mayr)

In 1832, the eccentric naturalist Constantin Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, described six new species of Abies from Oregon. Rafinesque had no specimens, apparently, basing his description entirely upon Lewis's descriptions. Among the six was Abies mucronata (mew-CROW-na-tah, alluding to the pointed bracts of the cone found in the two species of Pseudotsuga). He wrote:

5. Abies mucronata R. (Fifth Fir L. C.) bark scaly, branches virgate, leaves scattered very narrow, rigid, and oblique, sulcate above, pale beneath. Cones ovate acute, scales rounded nervose mucronate. Rises 150 feet, leaves sub-balsamic, one inch long, 1-20th wide, cones very large two and a half inches long. Var. palustris. Grows in swamps, only 30 feet high and with spreading branches.

The description of Abies mucronata was based on Lewis's description of Douglas-fir written on February 6, 1806, whereas the description of Rafinesque's Abies mucronata var. palustris (pal-US-tress, of a swampy place) was taken from Lewis's notes made on February 9. Interestingly, Rafinesque recognized Abies mucronata as a new species as early as 1817 in his manuscript "Florula Oregonensis," a work he never published. Had he done so, the scientific names of Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis [sit-CHEN-sis, from Sitka]), grand fir (Abies grandis [GRAN-dis, large, as to the size of the tree), Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis [a-MAB-ill-iss, lovely]), and Douglas-fir would all be different. Of the six species proposed by Rafinesque, only one, the western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla, called Abies heterophylla [heter-oh-PHIL-lah, alluding to the different sizes of needles on the same branch as reported by Lewis] by Rafinesque) remains in use today. That was based on Lewis' fir "No. 2."

When the plant was collected again, it was by the Scottish botanist David Douglas, who gathered seeds and specimens of the tree along the Columbia River in 1825 and again in 1830 for the Royal Horticultural Society. Based on the notes in his early Journal, published in 1914, Douglas gathered dried specimens in April (his number 82bis, bis meaning "again"; he assigned two different plant collections the same number). He does not report obtaining seeds in 1825, lamenting in September while along the Columbia River the "cones being on the top, I was unable to procure any." However, by 1830 he had seeds aplenty to send to England and the tree was soon in cultivation.