Sunday, March 28, 2010

David Douglas, what's in a name?

On yesterday's walk up an emerald green hillside (can it be any prettier out there), I noticed how many irises we have this year. Sprays of deep purple in the grass, petals splayed wide to show a splash of white and a bit of yellow at the center.

I love these flowers, the way they seem to just appear all of a sudden in spring, poking their furled blooms above the grass, then boom, spread their petals wide, trumpeting the season.

I look them up in my plant book: Douglas iris, Iris douglasiana, an extremely variable iris (that would explain why I sometimes see white or pale lavender blossoms in amongst the dark purple) that thrives along the Northern California coast. This all seems fine and right, but it's the name that stops me: Douglas iris. Douglas-fir. Clinopodium douglasii, taxonomic name for one of the most wonderfully aromatic plants in the West (and more in it another time), the ground-hugging yerba buena. Who is this Douglas, I wonder.

Turns out he was really quite something. Born in the village of Scone in Scotland in the last year of the 18th century, David Douglas grew up in a time when exploring and discovering--and naming--was in its heyday. As a burgeoning naturalist employed by the London Horticultural Society, he explored the Galapagos Islands 10 years before Darwin; on the iconic islands, he collected over 200 plant and animal species, most never identified before. In his fascinating book about Douglas called The Collector (Sasquatch Books, 2009), author Jack Nisbet notes that, once the naturalist settled in the wildly undiscovered Pacific Northwest (it must have been nirvana for young Douglas), it was estimated that he had already traveled 7,032 miles by foot, horseback, and canoe. In two years.

Not all that's written about Douglas is flattering; in fact, it's noted that he probably "stole" a plant or two from others, renaming them to contain his name, not the original discoverer's. The Douglas iris might be one of these plants. He was called cantankerous, cranky, not an altogether lovable guy. His death hints at some possible--and quite literally fatal--social flaw. In July 1834, while living on the Big Island, he tumbled into a pitfall trap set by a local hunter, where he was gored by a feral bull (in the trap with him? how horrible).

But mystery swirls: did he slip on the Mauna Kea track, or was he pushed by bush robbers? Did he really die in the pit with the crazed bull, or was he possibly murdered by a local ex-con? All we know are the tales, and that he died at a very young 35. Buried in an unmarked grave at Kawaiahao Church in Hilo, he later was acknowledged by locals who knew of his contributions; a plaque was put on a church wall, and a marker was put at the spot where he fell and died. A small grove of Douglas-fir marks the spot.

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