Douglas of the Fir

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Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana Douglas)The rewards were immediate and numerous. Even though first Menzies and then Lewis and Clark had collected plants in the area, they had found only the obvious. Almost every day Douglas was in the field he was finding curious plants that proved to be new to science, and as he traveled up the Columbia River, the novelties became more common. Because he was working for the Royal Horticultural Society, Douglas had to collect flowering and fruiting material, and then often had to return to the area at a different time of the year to gather seeds. Instead of returning to London in 1826, as instructed by Sabine, Douglas decided to stay in America. There were too many new plants yet to be collected.

One of the collections he sent to England with the fall's home-bound ship was the dried branches and needles of what he would call "Oregon pine," which today is called Douglas-fir.

The year 1826 found Douglas deep inland, climbing the tall mountains of northeastern Oregon and various peaks in the Cascade Range. Late that year he collected seeds of as many trees, shrubs and flowers as he could find, but if he got cones and seeds of Douglas-fir, he did not mention them. Rain and snow made collecting impossible for the first three months of 1827, and then in late March he and a small party set out to return to England via Hudson's Bay. Carrying all of his new collections, he and his crew traveled up the Columbia River and across the Rocky Mountains, reaching York Factory on the southwestern shore of the Bay on July 28.

Douglas spent two frustrating years in England, to which he returned on October 15, 1827. In a sense it was a productive time. He was able to describe the sugar pine, Pinus lambertianus (lam-bert-ee-AYE-nuss; the name means "in honor of Lambert"), the most distinctive discovery that he himself published. As for the other novelties, he left them for others to describe. In late October of 1829, Douglas headed back for the Columbia River as the pages of the Transactions of the Royal Horticultural Society and other journals were beginning to fill with the technical descriptions of the numerous new species of flowering plants he had already discovered.

Some eight months later, Douglas's ship reached the smooth waters of the Columbia, and once again he was collecting in the Pacific Northwest. In a letter dated October 11, 1830, Douglas wrote Hooker that he was sending a special package of six conifers, and apparently all with seeds. One of the six was Douglas-fir. He also indicated he was planning to go to California to collect the following year.