GARDENERS - WATCH YOUR STEP . . .AND WHO YOU STEP WITH! : NOT-SO-BORING BOTANISTS SERIES

April 24, 2010: This is the amazing, thrilling, yet true tale of a plant hunter! (Alright! So I changed the topic a wee bit from last time! You gotta problem with that?). That plant hunter, gentle reader, was the Scot David Douglas, who introduced 240 species of Pacific Northwest, Californian and Hawaiian plants to European botany. (Native-American botany had already known them for a millennium or so). His name is preserved in the Douglas fir tree, 80 Latin botanical names, and a high school in Portland, OR.

David Douglas was a botanist and pretty interesting guy. He is said to be North America’s first mountaineer , someone who climbs a mountain just for the hell of it, by climbing Mt. Brown in the Canadian Rockies. His plant hunting journeys in the Pacific Northwest, 1824-1827, introduced Salal, Sitka spruce, Ponderosa pine, California poppy, grand fir, and numerous other native plants that we use in the landscape today.

Plant hunting, though, is not a vocation for shrinking violets. ( I believe that was pun). It’s dirty, long hours, devoid of any 4 star lodgings or Wi-fi connections, and dangerous and it was David Douglas that finally met his demise in pursuit of plants. It was a death that gardeners and plants people have had immortal dread of since time immemorial. . . . . being gored to death by a wild bull in a pit. To the gardener and plants person, the digging of a planting hole is like an act of birth, the beginning of a new life in a new location for our leafy friend. But just like that ying and yang symbol where’s there is black inside the white and white inside the black, that hole taken to the most horrible extreme could also be one’s grave. Poor David Douglas, while walking a trail in Hawaii (he was working and not on vacation), slipped and fell into a capture pit that already contained a wild bullock, which proceeded to gore him to death . . .or so the story goes. For years afterwards, people wondered how an experienced trekker like David Douglas could be so clumsy as to fall into a pit in broad daylight. There were no witnesses when it happened and the last person to see him was a wild bullock hunter and escaped convict he had had lunch with. Native Hawaiians, years afterwards, said it was the hunter, Ned Gurney, who had killed Douglas for his purse of gold and thrown him in the pit to cover up the murder. We will never know for sure.

As a landscaper, I dig many holes. The cautionary tale of David Douglas makes me ever wary around my planting holes. I either plant in them or cover them up. I live on the edge of the Coast Range and granted there have never been any wild bullocks sighted around here, there are other wild things, like beaver ,for one. I have two in my pond. The thought of walking out my house one dark night and accidently falling into a planting pit to find a rabid beaver there . . . .well, it’s too terrible a thought to share here.

That is the amazing, thrilling, yet true tale of David Douglas. And the moral of that tale, gentle gardener, is to never leave your planting pits open and choose your planting company wisely.

F & P