Gardening with Galligan: What’s in a name?

PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE Botanist and adventurer,  David Douglas

Botanist and adventurer, David Douglas

There are botanists, horticulturalists and plantsmen.

This last term is used in reference to both men and women, although the term plantswoman occasionally appears, as well as plantsperson, both of which seem somewhat absurd.

A horticulturalist may be a plantsman, but a plantsman is not necessarily a horticulturalist. According to the literature, “A plantsman is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardener (amateur or professional)” and “the word is sometimes said to be synonymous with ‘horticulturist’ but that indicates a professional involvement, whereas ‘plantsman’ reflects an attitude to (and perhaps even an obsession with) plants.”

And then there are gardeners — us.

Plantsmen love plants for their own sake, for what they are; they may even in some odd way idolize them.

And there have been many famous plantsmen throughout history. In the next column or two we will have a look at some of them, but we’ll begin today with the group that I find even more interesting, the plant hunters — the men who went out into the wilds to bring back the new and unusual.

These are the men (if I find any women I will bring them to your attention but so far they seem to have stayed home), who throughout history, beginning early on, faced odds that it’s hard for us today to even imagine.

In 1495 B.C., the Egyptian queen, Hatshepsut, sent her plant hunters into Somalia in search of the trees from which incense is harvested. Marco Polo brought the peony back from China in the 13th century. As time went on, these plants usually found their way to botanical gardens and were available for public viewing, but very often, especially when the expeditions were privately financed, the specimens decorated the personal gardens of wealthy collectors.

Among the best known of these men was David Douglas, for whom the Douglas fir was named.

Douglas was born in 1799, the son of a stonemason, in the village of Scone, in Scotland, near Perth. His first gardening position was as an apprentice to William Beattie, head gardener at the estate of the 3rd Earl of Mansfield at Scone Palace.

After seven years, he went on to spend some time at university, studying some of the finer botanical points and attending the lectures given by William Jackson Hooker, who was Garden Director and professor of botany. Hooker was greatly impressed with Douglas and took him on an expedition he was mounting to the Highlands, eventually  sponsoring him for membership in the Royal Horticultural Society of London.

Douglas made three trips to North America, the second being his most successful and productive. In 1824, the Royal Horticultural Society financed his expedition to the American northwest and pine after pine followed.

He sent back Sugar Pine, Western White Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Lodgepole Pine, Monterey Pine, Grand Fir, Noble Fir and other conifers that had great meaning for the British timber industry, as well as for landscapers.

He brought back numerous garden shrubs as well, including lupines, penstemon and the California poppy. In one of his letters to Hooker, he wrote, “You will begin to think I manufacture pines at my pleasure.”

Altogether, he introduced about 240 species of plants to Britain. He died while on his third expedition in 1834, only in his 30’s, in a climbing accident in Hawaii.

We’ll continue next week with some of the other famous (at least to gardeners) men while waiting for the asters and solidago to come into bloom and then the berries that follow.