Douglas in California

Blood currant, Ribes sanguineum Pursh3

photo: gooseberries and blowwoms

© 2000 James L. Reveal

This currant is native to the coasts of Oregon and California. Meriwether Lewis collected a specimen on March 27, 1806.

His stay in California lasted from late December of 1830 until mid-August of 1833. While it was easy to go from Britain's Oregon to Mexico's California, it proved difficult to go the other way. During Douglas's extended stay he collected something over 500 new species of plants, many of them destined to become important garden herbs, trees and shrubs. He also gathered here, as elsewhere, many different kinds of mosses, a group of particular interest to Hooker.

He remained in Oregon only a few weeks until he sailed for Hawaii in mid-October, arriving there just before Christmas of 1833. Douglas's winter visits to Hawaii were a routine event as gathering plants on the floristically rich islands was as rewarding botanically as it was in the rich forests of Oregon. He stayed into July, the idea being that he would return shortly to London. He never made it.

It is difficult for one today to imagine the nature of the great, native forests of the Pacific Northwest that David Douglas walked through in late 1820s and early 1830s. It is equally difficult to comprehend the pain he endured to do it. Douglas was a gifted collector, but in the field he was often in trouble. He once fell on a nail that penetrated his leg under the kneecap. He nearly drowned in a glacier-fed river, losing his rifle, part of his collection, his journals, and his kit. He was weeks away from civilization with little but his wet clothes.

Some stories have an element of humor, as when he found his long-sought sugar pine in southern Oregon. He had long since become separated from the others he was traveling with, so only he and his dog gazed upon the great tree. The cones, ripe with seed, were so high that to get them he shot at them with his rifle. This attracted Indians—in warpaint. Crouching behind a downed giant of the very species he was studying, he pulled both pistols and his knives, and laid his rifle across the trunk. They agreed to talk, via sign language, whereupon Douglas persuaded the Indians to gather cones in exchange for tobacco. While the Indians were out of sight looking for cones, Douglas grabbed a branch and two cones and ran. Those specimens are still extant and may be seen today in England.

Douglas grew blind in one eye, and his vision was slowly failing in the other, so perhaps that's what caused his ultimate misfortune. While working on the island of Hawaii he fell into a bull trap had been dug on a well-used game trail to capture wild cows. Maybe he fell in first, and later the bull came along; maybe there was already a bull in the trap and the botanist fell in trying to look at it. In either case, when searchers came upon the site, his faithful dog was sitting near the edge of the pit, 34-year-old David Douglas was dead, and the bull had stopped mauling his body. It was July 12, 1834.

He was buried on the Island of Oahu; twenty-two years later a tombstone was erected, bearing his epitaph:

Hic jacet
Scotiâ, anno 1799 natus;
Indefessus viator,
A Londinensi Regiâ Societate Horticulturali missus,
In Havaii saltibus
die 12â Julii, A.D. 1834
victima scientiae
"Sunt lachrymae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt." —Virg.

Translation: Here lies D. DAVID DOUGLAS, born in Scotland in the year 1799; who, an untiring traveler, sent by the London Royal Horticultural Society, died a victim of science in a mountain forest of Hawaii on the 12th day of July, 1834 A.D.
"There are tears of things and they touch the mortal mind." —Virgil

Others would name the hundreds of new species Douglas found, often taking up the suggested names written on the tickets associated with each collection. It is impossible to venture anywhere in much of the American West without seeing a plant he collected, that he named, or that was named for him. In fact, in many places, all one needs to do is look at the forests on the higher mountains—there it will be, Douglas-fir, accounting for one-fourth of all the standing saw timber in the United States.


Coats, A. M. 1970. The plant hunters: Being a history of the horticultural pioneers, their quests and their discoveries from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Douglas, D. 1914. Journal kept by David Douglas during his travels in North America, 1823-1827. Royal Horticultural Society, London.

Hooker, W. J. 1836-1837. "A brief memoir of the life of Mr. David Douglas, with extracts from his letters." Companion to the Botanical Magazine 2: 79-182 [in four parts].

McKelvey, S. D. 1955. Botanical explorations of the trans-Mississippi west, 1790-1850. Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

Morwood, W. 1973. Traveler in a vanished landscape. The life & times of David Douglas, botanical explorer. Clarkson N. Potter Inc., Publisher. New York.

Reveal, J. L. 1992. Gentle conquest. The botanical discovery of North America with illustrations from the Library of Congress. Starwood Publishing, Washington, D.C.

Spongberg, S. A. 1990. A reunion of trees. The discovery of exotic plants and their introduction into North American and European landscapes. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

3. This species was named in 1813 by Pursh, who only had material collected by Meriwether Lewis. The image is of the gummy blood currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum (Benth.) Loud. of coastal California and southwestern Oregon. Douglas collected seeds of both plants and introduced them into cultivation.