At the dawn of the 19th century, Europe was reaping the benefits of discoveries and knowledge gained during the Age of Enlightenment. New scientific advances enabled the Great Explorers to reach distant lands. But the New World was still largely uncharted. The wilderness of western North America was contested and not yet part of the United States.
Plant hunters were seeking plants that could be of use, in everything from medicine to commerce. By sending out plant collectors, the Horticultural Society of London looked to expand scientific knowledge of the world’s plant kingdom. The Society also stood to make a handsome profit on sales of new plants to wealthy landowners. People who could afford it were eager to keep up with fashion by displaying the latest botanical discoveries in their own gardens.
Plant hunting was a pretty dangerous exercise. The average life expectancy of plant hunters of that time was around a year. Because inevitably you were going to dangerous places, not many other human beings around or if there were other human beings around they might well be hostile to you.
During my journey I collected the following plants, some very interesting and will, I am sure, amuse the lovers of plants at home: Spirea, plentiful on the rapids; grows very luxuriant in low, damp, shady woods. Clarkia puchella, annual; flowers rose color; abundant on the dry sandy plains near the Great Falls; an exceedingly beautiful plant. I hope it may grow in England. Campanula, perennial; flowers blue; rocky situations near the Rapids.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see precisely the point at which it all started to go wrong for Douglas, traveling down the Fraser River, with the fruits of several years' hard labor—with specimens, with seed collections which it had taken some seasons to collect, and of course with the journal. And the journal was THE journal, there was only one journal, there was only one copy of it, and virtually all of that was lost.
At first, David Douglas’s introductions were treasured for their beauty and their grandness. But in time, more practical uses for the trees were found. Douglas always recognized the value of nature to mankind.
He foresaw the benefit of the forests, and certainly in the trees, and particular Sitka spruce and Douglas fir, he foresaw the great role they could play in clothing the uplands, the Highlands of Scotland, just exactly the countryside you're looking behind me in his native Perthshire.