At a glance
  • David Kavanagh-Spall is an Environmental Planning specialist who works with Lark
14th March 2017

Plant hunters and unintended consequences

David Kavanagh-Spall, an Environmental Planning specialist who works with Lark, takes a fascinating look at plant collecting.

A fashion for plant collecting, which was particularly competitive amongst those wealthy enough to develop their own botanical gardens, was prevalent in the 19th century. These rich landowners and commercial nurseries (seeking a wider audience) invested huge amounts of money in the search for exotic plants.

Step forward David Douglas, recommended by the great botanist, William Jackson Hooker (viewed as Kew Garden’s most illustrious director), to be sent on a trip to the Pacific coast of America to collect new and exciting plants.

In the late 18th century, over 30 years before this trip the botanist Archibald Menzies had waxed lyrical about trees twice the size of anything he had ever seen before, which he had noted whilst present on Captain Vancouver’s voyage of the area. The Horticultural Society commissioned a plant hunting exhibition with the remit to collect seeds from these monster trees and other plants, and David Douglas was their man.

Douglas stood out; he was the son of a stonemason and reportedly had a repressive early upbringing making him  withdrawn but ready to fight. He was apprenticed to the gardener of the Earl of Mansfield at the age of 7, possibly due to his troublesome nature. He never looked back and flourished in this environment, learning quickly. Plant hunters had a reputation for courage but Douglas took this to another level; the deeds of the fictional hero, Indiana Jones, pale into insignificance against Douglas’s exploits.

In 1824

Douglas launched himself into  the USA’s north western wilderness literally daring it to stand in his way. Wearing his tartan coat and carrying tea which he appeared to survive on, he travelled across thousands of miles of land with no paths to follow, mostly alone. He was famed for his hardiness, carrying impressive loads of specimens, through Arctic conditions, torrential rains and baking heat; wounded, ill and often in danger from wildlife and humans, he was determined not to lose a single specimen and pushed himself way beyond normal human limits with the scent in his nostrils for yet another new specimen. His haul of specimens was prodigious. He wrote to Hooker; ‘you will begin to think that I manufacture pines at my pleasure’. 

Responsible plant hunters of today have learnt the lessons of the past and are aware of the bull pits in their path

David Douglas, over a period of 10 years or so, introduced over 200 new species to Europe’s forests and gardens. Over time, his tree introductions changed his native Scotland from a country dependent upon imports of timber to a country with a large enough resource to be self-sufficient and have a thriving timber export industry providing thousands of jobs. I am sure this would have pleased Douglas to see Scotland and Europe’s landscape botanically enriched through his endeavours. However, what of the countries where plants were being taken from not only by Douglas but other hunters including Latin America, India, North China and Japan?

Many countries were not happy to have their plant riches ransacked for the developed western world. Douglas, however, reported by some to be cantankerous, humourless, stubborn and impolite, wrote with an unforced empathy for the natural environments in which he travelled and the indigenous people he met there. Native Americans not always welcoming to visitors, have been recorded as treating the strange ‘Grassman’ as they named him, with great respect and native Hawaiians became used to his plant hunting visits, welcoming him as a friend.

Douglas’s pursuit of new plant specimens in the harshest of environments began to take its toll; he survived many trials and tribulations including fever which broke out by the Hudson Bay Company killing over 90% of the local inhabitants, treacherous ship journeys and terrible exposure to extreme climates, resulting in the loss of sight in one eye.

In 1833

David Douglas set off up the Columbia and Thompson Rivers looking for a party to travel to the coast of British Columbia but, no one was available. Travelling back, disaster struck as his canoe was smashed to pieces with him reportedly losing everything including 400 specimens, of which 250 were mosses, some new to science. It is recorded that he wrote, “I cannot tell you how much this has worn me down.”

As well as blindness in his right eye, his left eye now also troubled him. Douglas, however, pushed on sailing to Hawaii and plant hunting in an area where bulls were also hunted. Plant hunters were known to take huge risks but the fate that met David Douglas was received with shock; Douglas, over a prolonged period, had been hunting in a mountainous area when, on his return to his lodgings, he fell into a bull pit and was trampled and gored to death. There are rumours of foul play, which persist to this day, that Douglas was robbed and pushed into the pit by a convict who had escaped from Australia, but this has never been proved.

David Douglas’s remarkable exploits not only provided new plant specimens but his detailed observations of all wildlife, geology, and astronomy have been of great benefit to science, and I believe that he felt his pursuits were benefiting not only his country and financial backers, but nature itself. However...

Douglas stood out; he was the son of a stonemason

Alongside the benefits to nature, such as our understanding of much of the planet’s wildlife and what measures are necessary to conserve it, there are perhaps unintended consequences. Exploitation; countries such as Thailand where rare orchid populations and the species they support are pushed to the brink.

Native woodland plants in the UK and their wildlife being outcompeted by introduced plants such Rhododendron Ponticum, Japanese Knotweed and many others. Perhaps the one David Douglas could never have foreseen was the conifers he specialised in introducing, including the magnificent Douglas fir, being felled and replaced by our native broadleaf timber trees which are better from a conservation perspective.

Responsible plant hunters of today have learnt the lessons of the past and are aware of the bull pits in their path both in terms of their own safety and the planet’s wildlife, with conservation the main aim. On a smaller scale, perhaps we should be more aware of our own plant hunting expeditions on the weekends at local nurseries and what the consequences might be of our own choices, particularly that small willow which ends up being bigger than the house within 10 years and affecting the house foundations.

Please be careful of bull pits. (David Douglas 1799 – 1834)