Thursday, June 27, 2013

The king of the spruces: Douglas spruce (Pseudotsuga douglasii)

Today the Douglas spruce is known worldwide as a timber-producing conifer. This evergreen tree is also used in landscaping and as a Christmas tree. Mature trees can be almost as tall as redwood trees. They definitely impressed the Scottish-born naturalist and mountaineer John Muir, when he explored the American Northwest during the 19th century [1]:
This tree is the king of the spruces, as the Sugar Pine is king of pines. It is by far the most majestic spruce I ever beheld in any forest, and one of the largest and longest lived of the giants that fluorish throughout the main pine belt, often attaining a height of nearly 200 feet, and a diameter of six and seven. Where the growth is not too close, the strong, spreading branches come more than halfway down the trunk, and these are hung with innumerable slender, swaying sprays, that are handsomely feathered with the short leaves which radiate at right angles all around them. This vigorous spruce is ever beautiful, welcoming the mountain winds and the snow as well as the mellow summer light, and maintaining its youthful freshness undiminished from century to century through a thousand storms.
John Muir, 1894.

The Douglas spruce was discovered—from a British-European viewpoint—by Archibald Menzies, a surgeon-naturalist from Scotland, who had joined George Vancouver on his voyage along the Pacific North West coast in 1792 [2,3]. Botanist David Douglas, another Scot, who years later came to the lands of the Columbia River, succeeded in sending home cones and seeds. Douglas called the tree by the scientific name Pinus taxifolia, which was later named Pseudotsuga douglassii in his honor by John Muir. Now, this species of the pine family is recognized scientifically as Pseudotsuga menziesii and by the common name Douglas fir— although Douglas pine would fit better. Whatever name, no adventuring Scotsman has been left behind.

Keywords: conifers, Pinaceae, natural history, nomenclature, western North America.

References and more to explore
[1] John Muir: The Mountains of California. The Century Company, New York, 1894. Note: see pages 119 to 120  in the Penguin Classics Book print of 1985 with an introduction by Edward Hoagland.
[2] Ann Lindsay Mitchell and Syd House: David Douglas, Explorer and Botanist.Aurum Press Ltd, London, Great Britain, 1999; pp. 51-52.
[3] John Muir and the Douglas fir of Washington [].

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