'Some American Pines'

Mixed stand of Rocky Mountain forest: Spruce, Pine and Fir

Near Lolo Pass, Montana

hills forested with medium-sized evergreen trees

© James L. Reveal

In 1914, just as the secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society, the Reverend William Wilks, and the Society's librarian, H. R. Hutchinson, were finishing their editing of the journal kept by David Douglas during his travels in North America, they came upon two hand-written manuscripts by Douglas entitled "Some American Pines." The two copies were drafts of the same paper, and Wilks and Hutchinson combined the two into a single document that they published (pp. 338–48 in Douglas's Journal). The editors suggested that the two manuscripts were "about the same date as the other manuscripts from which the rest of this volume has been printed," or some time between 1823 and 1827. This seems unlikely.


Sugar pine, Pinus lambertiana

Spreading canopy with pendulous cones

top of a tall evergreen tree

© James L. Reveal

In reviewing the text, some hint of a date begins to appear. First, the manuscript published in 1914 discusses conifers observed by Douglas in the Pacific Northwest and Canada during the years 1823–27. It does not mention any of the new California conifers, most significantly Pinus sabiniana published by Douglas in the Transactions of the Linnaean Society in 1833. It does mention P. lambertiana, the sugar pine that was described by Douglas in 1827, giving the page upon which the name was formally established. This would date the manuscript sometime after Douglas' return to England on 15 Oct 1827, and almost certainly after the article was published in mid-December of that year. Equally important is that Abies grandis (Douglas ex D. Don) Lindl., or what Douglas would later call Pinus grandis Douglas ex D. Don, was not included in the manuscript. This species was not found until the year after Douglas left London on 26 Oct 1829. Finally, Douglas states that he never had it in his power to procure perfect specimens of Pinus monticola, a situation that would be resolved in 1830.

What is curious is this: Why was Pinus lambertiana published by Douglas almost immediately upon his arrival in London, but none of the other species? An answer is not immediately obvious, but the following speculations may be made.


Ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa

near Unity, Oregon

Thick stand of medium-sized evergreen trees with very high branches

© James L. Reveal

The first species in the manuscript was scheduled to be called Pinus douglasii [=Pseudotsuga menzesii (Mirb.) Franco]. While it is traditional for plants to be named for their discoverer, it is not traditional for one to name a new species for him or her self. Thus, the name Pinus douglasii was credited by Douglas in his manuscript to "Sabine in Trans. Hort. Soc. Vol." Likewise, the other new species of conifers, P. menziesii [=Picea sitchensis (Bong.) Carr.] 1, P. nobilis [=Abies procera Rehd.]2, P. amabilis [=Abies amabilis Douglas ex J. Forbes]3, Pinus monticola Douglas ex D. Don4, Pinus ponderosa Douglas ex Laws. & C. Laws.5, and Pinus contorta Douglas ex Loud.6, were all attributed to Sabine.

It is therefore likely that Douglas prepared the manuscript for the Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society, Joseph Sabine (1770-1837), with the idea that he would publish the paper. This never happened. However, it is certain that Sabine conveyed the information in the manuscript to David Don (1799-1841), the librarian at The Linnean Society of London, who published several of the names in an unnumbered insert in Lambert's 1832 third edition of A description of the genus Pinus. Significantly, in the late fall of 1830, Douglas sent a critical set of six specimens of the conifers back to London (they arrived in 1831), and with these, complete descriptions could be drafted. Also, seeds were obtained as well, which were rapidly introduced into cultivation (Pinus ponderosa was already in cultivation).


Western larch, Larix occidentalis

near Lolo Pass, Montana

Very tall evergreen tree with high branches on the side of a forest hill

© James L. Reveal

It appears that Douglas probably drafted his manuscript in 1829 prior to his departure for the Columbia River in October of that year, and indicated to Sabine that he would promptly obtain adequate material to support his belief that each was new to science. It also probably took Douglas some time, in 1828–29, to review the specimens of all of his conifers, in both the herbarium and in the literature, before he could draft his manuscript. As for the new specimens and seeds, these he obtained in 1830, with the result that he had good material of Pinus monticola, and seeds of most of the rest. It is clear that Douglas wrote the manuscript while still in London.

It may also be postulated that Sabine was reluctant to claim authorship of a paper he did not write, and knowing that Don was revising Lambert's treatment of the pines, took the opportunity to provide him with at least some of Douglas' names, descriptions and specimens. What caused the delay in the formal publication of some of the new species is unclear. Don described Pinus douglasii, P. menziesii, P. nobilis and P. monticola, but not Douglas's "P. amabilis," P. ponderosa or P. contorta. Each of these latter names would appear after 1832 in listings of cultivated plants. Exactly what in the way of specimens was before such authors as John C. Loudon (1783-1843), the noted British horticultural writer, when he proposed his names, is unclear as well. Could he have seen Douglas' specimens and based his name on this material, or did he see trees in cultivation? The latter now seems likely. As for Charles Lawson (1794-1873), who published P. ponderosa in a book written with his father Peter Lawson (d. 1820), he stated that he saw living material growing in England and made no mention of any herbarium material.

The following is the combined text of the two Douglas manuscripts as published in Appendix VIII of Douglas' Journal. Editor Reveal has included some additional notes and comments.

1. Pinus Douglasii. Foliis solitariis planis subdistichis, strobilis ovatis pendulis, bracteolis exsertis, 3-cuspidatis.7 Sabine in Trans. Hort. Soc., Vol.8

Flowers in April and May, fruit ripe in September.9

Male Lodgepole pine cone

brown, nobby pine cones

© James L. Reveal

Female Lodgepole pine cone

smallish pine cone with sharp points

© 2000 James L. Reveal

Leaves solitary, flat, entire, imperfectly two-ranked, blunt at the apex, dark shining green above, glaucous underneath, about an inch long. Common filament erect, shorter than the bractea. Another reniform, inflated, destitute of a crest, having instead a blunt, short entire point. Bractea nearly round, concave, densely ciliated or fringed.10 Female catkin, erect, sessile, oblong or elliptic, one inch long, of a bright pink colour. Bractea lineaer-oblong, ciliate, tricuspidate, persistent, very long.11 Cone sessile, ovate, pointed, pendulous in clusters at the extremities of the twigs, two to two and a half inches long, one and and a half of an inch in diameter. Scales orbicular, ciliate, slightly notched near the base, entire at the apex, soft and velvety to the touch, fuscous [brownish-green], the bractea of a glossy reddish tint and exserted beyond the scale five-eights of an inch.

Seeds small, pointed at the base, widening upwards, brown, wing pointed, broad and large in proportion to the seed.12

Tree remarkably tall, unusually straight, having the pyramidal form peculiar to the Abies tribe of Pines.13 The trees which are interspersed in groups or standing solitary in dry upland, thin, gravelly soils or on rocky situations, are thickly clad to the very ground with widespreading [sic] pendent branches, and from the gigantic size which they attain in such places and from the compact habit uniformly preserved they form one of the most striking and truly graceful objects in Nature. Those on the other hand which are in the dense gloomy forests, two-thirds of which are composed of this species, are more than usually straight, the trunks being destitute of branches to the height of 100 to 140 feet, being in many places so close together that they naturally prune themselves, and in the most impenetrable parts where they stand at an average distance of five square feet, they frequently attain a greater height and do not exceed even 18 inches in diameter close to the ground. In such places some arrive at a magnitude exceeded by few if any trees in the world generally 20 or 30 feet apart. The actual measurement of the largest was of the following dimensions: entire length 227 feet, 48 feet in circumference 3 feet above the ground, 7½ feet in circumference 159 feet from the ground.14

Giant sequoia base, Sequoiadendron giganteum

Sierra Nevada of California

The trunk of a very large tree, wider than two cars

© 2000 James L. Reveal

Some few even exceed that girth, but such trees do not carry their proportionate thickness to such a vast height as that above mentioned. Behind Fort George [now Astoria, Oregon], near the confluence of the Columbia River, the old establishment of the Honourable the Hudson's Bay Company, there stands a stump of this species which measures in circumference 48 feet, 3 feet above the ground, without its bark. The tree was burned down to give place to a more useful vegetable, namely potatos [sic].

On a low estimation the average side may be given at 6 feet diameter, and 160 high. The young trees have a thin, smooth, pale whitish-green bark covered with a profusion of small blisters like P. balsamea or Balm of Gilead Fir [=Abies balsamea (L.) Mill., the balsam fir found east of the Rocky Mountains], which, when broken, yield a limpid oil fluid possessing a fragrant and very peculiar odour, and which, after a few days' exposure to the action of the atmosphere, acquires a hard brittle consistence like other rosins, assuming a pale amber colour. The bark of the aged trees is rough, rotten, and corky, the pores smaller and containing less rosin, and in the most aged, 4 to 12 inches thick, greatly divided by deep fissures.

Often in the space or vacuity between the bark and the timber of standing dead trees [blank space] is found and may be flayed off in large pieces of several square yards and from its texture and colour might without examination be taken for sheepskin. There is no doubt but this curious species of Fungus hastens the decay of the timber like dry rot in Oak, through perhaps not in the same degree, and, as I have observed it only on erect trees or those dead on the stump, I infer it will not exist in the seasoned wood, consequently cannot detract any merit from it.15

Wood straight and regular in the grain, fine, heavy, and easily split; the layers or rings of a darker tint, closely resembling the timber of the well-known Larch [probably Larix laricina (Du Roi) K. Koch of eastern North America]. Whether it will prove durable or not remains yet to be known.

If we judge from the quantity of charcoal produced it will not prove so durable as the Larch; the coal is moderately hard, bulky, brown, which might be expected from the great quantity of gaseous matter it contains. What might be the exact age of one of the largest dimensions could not be ascertained, not having the means of preparing a transverse section sufficiently well polished to be able to determine with accuracy the number of annual layers. One tree 14 feet in diameter, counting from the centre, gave 167 rings or layers to within four and three-fourths of an inch of the outside, where they became so thin that they could no longer be exactly ascertained; although with sufficient accuracy upon which to ground a moderate calculation that fifty years added only nine and a quarter inches to the diameter of the trunk.

This is a common tree from Cape Blanco [southern Oregon], situated in 43°, to the Straits of Juan de Fuca [central British Columbia] in 49° North Latitude, abounding in all the mountainous parts of the coast, preferring light, dry, thin, or gravelly soils, on a substratum of sand and clay or on rocky places. A few straggling trees are seen at Cape Mendocino [northern California] in 40° which may be regarded as its most southern range, and likely it will extend much farther north than the habitat above given.16

1. The nomenclatural summary of these names is as follows: Picea sitchensis (Bong.) Carr., Traité Gén. Conif.: 260. 1855, based on Pinus sitchensis Bong., Mém. Acad. Imp. Sci. Saint-Pétersbourg, sér. 6, Sci. Math. 2: 164. Aug 1832. (Collector unknown, Sitka, Alaska.)

Pinus menziesii Douglas ex D. Don in Lamb., Descr. Gen. Pinus: 2: unnumbered page between pp. 144 and 145. 1832 (see footnote 23, below). Abies menziesii (Douglas ex D. Don) Lindl., Penny Cycl. 1:32. 1833, nom. illeg., non Mirb., Mém. Soc. Hist. Nat. Paris 13:63, 70. 1825.

Picea menziesii (Douglas ex D. Don) Carr., Traité Gén. Conif.:237. 1855. (Douglas, Arguilar [=Umpqua] River, Oregon, Oct 1826.)

2. The nomenclatural summary of these names is as follows: Abies procera Rehd., Rhodora 42: 522. 1940, a new name for Abies nobilis (Dougl. ex D. Don) Lindl., Penny Cycl. 1: 30. 1833, nom. illeg., non A. Dietr., Fl. Berlin: 793. 1824, based on Pinus nobilis Douglas ex D. Don in Lamb., Descr. Gen. Pinus: 2: unnumbered page between pp. 144 and 145. 1832. (Douglas, Arguilar [=Umpqua] River, Oregon, Oct 1826.)

Picea nobilis Douglas ex Loud., Arb. Frut. Brit. 4: 2342. 1838. (Cultivated specimens grown in England from seeds gathered by Douglas in Oregon and/or Washington.)

3. The nomenclatural summary of these names is as follows: Abies amabilis Douglas ex J. Forbes Pinet. Woburn.: 125. 1839. (Cultivated specimens grown at Woburn Abbey, England, from seeds gathered by Douglas in Oregon.)

Picea amabilis Douglas ex Loud., Arb. Frut. Brit. 4: 2342. 1838. (Cultivated specimens grown in England from seeds gathered by Douglas in Oregon and/or Washington.)

The above two names were based on different elements and thus the Forbes name is not a new combination based of the Loudon name. Rather, Forbes likely took the name from a note by William J. Hooker (Comp. Bot. Mag. 2: 93. 1836) who mentioned the name but did not describe the tree.

4. The nomenclatural summary of this name is as follows: Pinus monticola Douglas ex D. Don in Lamb., Descr. Gen. Pinus: 2: unnumbered page between pp. 144 and 145. 1832. Strobus monticola (Douglas ex D. Don) Rydb., Fl. Rocky Mts.: 13, 1060. 1917. (Douglas, mountains near Grand Rapids of the Columbia, Oregon, collected in 1830.)

5. The nomenclatural summary of this name is as follows: Pinus ponderosa Douglas ex C. Lawson in P. Lawson & C. Lawson, Agric. Man.: 354. 1836. (Douglas, Spokane River, Washington, collected in 1826).

Neither Lewis and Clark nor Douglas distinguished between ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa) of the Cascade-Sierra Nevada ranges, and the mountain ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum Engelm.) of the Rocky Mountains from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Douglas collected material from the Blue Mountains of Oregon where the scopulorum is the local expression, but most of his material came from locations to the west.

6. The nomenclatural summary of this name is as follows: Pinus contorta Douglas ex Loud., Arb. Frut. Brit. 4: 2292. 1838. (Douglas, "on swampy ground near the sea coast; and, abundantly near Cape Disappointment and Cape Lookout," Washington, collected in 1830.)

Lewis and Clark did not distinguished between the shore pine (Pinus contorta var. contorta) which is restricted to a narrow band along the coast from southern Alaska to northern California, and the much more widespread lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia Engelm.). Douglas confused lodgepole pine with jack pine (Pinus banksiana Lamb.), a more northern and eastern species.

7. This translates to "Needles solitary in approximately a row on each side of the branch, cones ovate, pendulous, bractlets exserted, 3-pointed." A 3-pointed cone bract is unique to Pseudotsuga, and allows ready identification of the genus. Although Douglas gives a far more length description in English in the follow paragraphs, the presentation of a Latin diagnosis or description was often added for the benefit of those who did not read English. The rules governing modern botanical nomenclature now requires a Latin diagnosis (a brief statement of how the new plant differs from its near relatives) or a Latin description (Douglas gave a brief description).

8. No such paper was published.

9. Conifers lack flowers, a feature unique to the flowering plants or the angiosperms (Magnoliophyta). The conifers (Pinophyta) have male and female strobuli or cone-like structures that individually bare pollen (male) or ovules (immature seeds, female). This technical distinction was not known to Douglas, or even understood fully until the end of the nineteenth century. Also, the life cycle of Douglas-fir is far more complex that Douglas could ascertain, so that in April and May, pollen is released and in September, the seeds reach a point in their development that they can be removed from the cone.

10. This section describes the bracts of male strobilus and the stalk (or rachis) that holds of bracts.

11. This section describes the immature female strobilus at or just after pollen is released from the male strobilus. This structure eventually becomes the cone.

12. See volume two of Flora North America for a modern description, illustrations and distribution map of Douglas-fir. [Click on "Online Treatments," then "Gymnosperms," then "Pinaceae." Scroll down and click on "Pseudotsuga."]

13. When Carl Linnaeus established Pinus in 1753, he defined the genus so as to include several genera that are widely accepted today. One of the groups Linnaeus included in Pinus were those now referred to the genus Abies. In Douglas' time, this subgroup within the pine group was often referred to as the "Abies tribe." Today, the rules of nomenclature state that the term "tribe" applies to a taxonomic group above the rank of genus. The term "section" is applied now to the equivalent taxonomic group below the rank of genus that was implied by Douglas.

14. The fact that Douglas was so firm in his belief that this was one of the tallest and largest conifers reflects that this was written before he ventured into California (1830-1832) and saw the coastal redwood [Sequoia sempervirens (D. Don) Endl.]. That species is the tallest conifer (but not the tallest tree, that being an Australian eucalyptus). It would not be until the 1850s that the bigtree [Sequoiadendron giganteum (Lindl.) Buchholz] would be reported in the scientific literature. That species is the largest (or most massive) conifer (although not the largest plant-like form, that being a fungus). For the difficulties of determining what plants are the tallest, smallest, largest, etc., see Botanical Record-Breakers by Wayne Armstrong of Palomar College in San Marcos, California.

15. Douglas had not yet determined the name of the fungus and left a space to insert it.

16. Douglas-fir or "coastal Douglas-fir" (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii occurs from southwestern British Columbia southward to Monterey County, California, and irregularly eastward into the Cascade Range of Washington and Oregon, and in the Sierra Nevada of California and extreme west-central Nevada, south to Fresno County, California. Douglas' suggestion that the species would be further north proved not to be correct; rather, the variety was found much further to the south than he predicted, another indication that the manuscript was prepared prior to Douglas' visit to California in 1830.