O Christmas Tree! Thy discoverers are so amazing ...
The man for whom the Douglas fir was named was stomped to death by a fitfully angry bull in close quarters.
This isn't an essay about the history of the Christmas tree, whose tradition can be traced back to late-Middle Ages Germany, but rather, a brief history about the people who discovered some of them.
This is not quite as boring as it sounds.
In the 1700s and 1800s, botanical treasure hunting in the Americas was every bit as swashbuckling as high-seas piracy or any other sort of adventuresome career you can think of.
The man for whom the Douglas fir was named was stomped to death by a fitfully angry bull in close quarters, for example. Either that or he was murdered. Nobody knows for certain.
What is certain, though, is that in the 1700s and 1800s, the New World was full of plants that the rest of the world had never seen. Gardening as a hobby was just beginning to take off in England and Russia, and elsewhere in Europe, too; thus, there was big money to be made in discovering exotic specimens and bringing their seeds back to the Old World for propagation.
Finding new plants meant years of climbing mountains and crossing deserts and fording rivers, all of it done by men of dubious scientific training, who were more or less ill-suited for lives of rugged exploration.
JOHN JEFFREY — Jeffrey Pine
Scottish-born, as many of the great North American plant hunters were, John Jeffrey was selected to travel to America in 1849 to collect plants for the next five years. What his friends and relatives thought of this decision at the time is unrecorded by historical accounts.
Mostly he explored the Pacific Northwest, and near California's Mount Shasta, he documented what is now known as the Jeffrey Pine, one of many popular Christmas-tree iterations out west. In 1854, having departed from San Diego, he attempted a crossing of the Colorado Desert. He was never seen again. "Among plant hunters of the Northwest, John Jeffrey was like a shooting star, a quick twinkle soon extinguished,"writes Frank Lang.
There are several accounts of Jeffrey's death. Contemporary James McNab wrote: "It appears that he was killed trading with Indians." Frederick V. Coville believes Jeffrey "perished of thirst on the Colorado Desert." A third account says that "he was murdered by a Spanish Outcast, for his mule and scanty traveling-appointments."
DAVID DOUGLAS — Douglas-Fir
David Douglas, likewise Scotland born, made the same Pacific Northwest trip as John Jeffrey, but decades earlier. In 1824, he began his multiyear exploration of the region, discovering several types of conifers.
In 1827, he introduced the Douglas-fir into wide cultivation (though it had already been "discovered" by rival botanist Archibald Menzies, which is how the Douglas-fir got its scientific name, Pseudotsuga menziesii). The Douglas-fir is not a true fir, and there are several species of it, found all over the world, but Douglas is the person who gave the tree its common name.
By age 35, he was already one of the most celebrated botanists in Europe, and he took a much-deserved vacation to Hawaii in 1833.
Climbing Mauna Kea, he is said to have fallen into a wild-animal pit trap. If that wasn't bad enough, the trap was already — or soon after became — occupied by a bull, which was not pleased about its predicament, as you can imagine.
He (Douglas, not the bull) was found dead some time later, apparently by a hunter named Ned Gurney, who also happened to be an escaped convict. This led to some speculation that Gurney had killed Douglas for the cash he was carrying on him, and while he was a suspect in Douglas' death, he was never arrested.
C.J. LEYLAND — Leyland Cypress
C.J. Leyland was not a plant hunter, but his story is just as interesting. Born Christopher John Naylor in 1849, C.J. changed his surname to Leyland after inheriting Haggerston Castle, part of Leyland Entailed Estates, from his uncle, a well-to-do banker. After moving into the castle in the 1890s, he began an ambitious gardening and landscaping program across 23,000 acres.
One result of his efforts was the propagation of Cupressocyparis leylandii, a sterile hybrid of the Nootka Cypress and the Monterey Cypress (inter-genetic breeding between two different trees is rare, which is why the offspring must be passed down by root cuttings). The Leyland Cypress is a lush, hardy and fast-growing evergreen, and for many years was one of the best-selling plants in Great Britain, and in 1941 the cuttings arrived in the U.S.
C.J. Leyland might have gone on to greater botany notoriety were it not for the unfortunate "fact"that the castle was the victim of a witch's curse, which, legend has it, resulted in at least three fires at the castle. The last of the fires occurred in 1911, burning down part of the grounds, and Leyland never lived in the castle again (or tended to its gardens). It was demolished in the 1930s.
JOHN FRASER — Fraser Fir
The Fraser fir is found in the Eastern U.S. and Appalachia. John Fraser — again, a Scotsman — is credited with the discovery in this case. He was a linen draper who, mid-career, decided to take up botany collection. It was a good career choice, and his collecting led him to Eastern North America in the late 1700s.
Fraser was remarkably successful at transplanting living seedlings across the oceans, which means he was a remarkably profitable plant hunter. One biographer credits his method of "packing them (seedlings) in wet moss" before shipping them off for his financial success. After discovering the fir that now bears his name, he moved farther south, then into Cuba, exploring with his son and "disguised as Americans"(fake passports and all) rather than Englishmen, because the English were at war with the Spanish at the time.
Their ruse was discovered, writes David C. Stuart in "The Plants That Shaped Our Gardens," but the governor of Cuba let them explore freely, saying: "My country, it is true, is at war with England, but not with the pursuits of these travelers."
The Cuban exploration got off to a rocky start, but the trip there was even worse. Fraser's ship was wrecked on a coral reef between Havana and Florida and stranded for several days before being rescued by a Spanish salvage boat. On his way back to England, his boat again nearly sank. A decade later, exploring the mountains of South Carolina, his horse lost its balance and fell on top of him, crushing his ribs. He died from those injuries the following year, in 1811.
Postscript: Oddly enough, there was a great Victorian botanist named David Spruce, but he did not have anything to do with the Spruce tree.
He spent more than a decade exploring the Andes and the Amazon River in the mid 1800s, collecting odd medicinal specimens, including quinine, a bitter bark that makes an excellent anti-malaria drug (and an ingredient in Campari and many tonic waters).
(Bill Toland, who during his high-school years cut down Christmas trees to make extra holiday money, is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staff writer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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