19. Douglas-fir

David Douglas is probably the most successful plant collector of all time. On his two expeditions to North America, in 1824 and 1833, he discovered hundreds of species unknown to science – or at least, to the scientists of Europe. He also brought over 240 new plants back to Britain.

This was critical. In an odd way, travelling half way across the world to find new plants was the easy bit. Getting them home was much tougher. An early 19th-century explorer was obliged to find a plant in season, collect its seeds, and dry them in the field, usually in the soggy late summer/early autumn period, with little more than a camp fire and a few leaves of paper. These seeds then needed to be labelled, shipped back across the world (without getting wet), and planted and cultivated by talented horticulturalists, who likely had only the faintest understanding of the growing conditions they preferred.

This was, as you might imagine, a spectacular crapshoot: the vast majority of seeds were lost at some point in the process. But it was how early plant explorers earned their keep. Douglas’ expeditions were sponsored by the Royal Horticultural Society. They gambled that this young Scot would bring back a few dozen plants, the cultivation and sale of which would cover the expense of the expedition.

In this case, the gamble paid off handsomely. David Douglas brought us many of our most common garden plants: sunflowers, lupins, flowering currants. But his name is most associated with trees, and one tree in particular towers above the others, literally and figuratively.

Archibald Menzies, another Scotsman who travelled to the Pacific Northwest a couple of decades before Douglas, was the first to describe what we now know as the Douglas-fir. Based on his observations, it was named Pinus taxofolia by Aymer Lambert in 1803. The wonderfully named Constantin Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz thought differently, and called it Abies mucronata. Douglas himself was the first to successfully collect it and bring it back to Britain, and one of his associates, John Lindley, renamed it Abies douglasii in his honour.

In fact, the Douglas-fir had at least at least seven different names between 1800 and 195o –fairly typical of the thousands of exotic plants that were first categorised at a distance. Today, we call it Pseudotsuga menziesii in Latin, and Douglas-fir in English, to honour both the person (I should say the European) who first described it, and the one who brought it home.

Right now, there are Douglas-firs everywhere. They are amongst the most popular Christmas trees – particularly for town squares, as they grow tall and fast, and particularly in America. And they’ve got me thinking.

I got married two weeks ago, and among other things, I ended up with a new name: Pollen. This is a combination of my and my wife’s surnames (Palin and Potts), and a nod to my family, who keep bees, and live near Manchester.

There was a time when men often gave themselves new names. Carl von Linné, the Swedish father of taxonomy, is better known to us as Linnæus, because of his father Latinised their family name in the fashion of learned men of the time. A few hundred years later, however, that fashion is no more. Overwhelmingly in our culture, it is women who change their names.

The practice of women adopting their husbands’ surnames began in the 15th century (before then, they lost their surnames entirely, as they become ‘property’ of their new spouses). It has deep roots. And, if you think the times are a-changin’, you’re basically wrong: 60% of women want to adopt their husbands’ surnames, according to YouGov, with little difference between the old and the young. A similar proportion of men want the same thing.

I find this baffling. For my wife and I, it was hard to look past the uncomfortable weight of history that demands a woman – and only a woman – must become a different – more obedient, and deferential – person when she marries. A new name meant a new life started together; an equal partnership, for which we’d both willingly made a small but significant sacrifice. An old one would have unbalanced the scales from day one.

Names aren’t simple things, of course. Some people hate theirs, perhaps because they came from an estranged parent, or perhaps because they just don’t like the sound. A name may speak of a family’s history, be that a particular culture, or a particular job. When, early in the 19th century, millions of immigrants landed in America for the first time, many of them adopted Anglicized names to help them find work, housing, and acceptance – and many in minority communities still make the same choice.

The name of the Douglas-fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, is a compromise: between Menzies, Douglas, and the various taxonomic boxes it’s been shoved into over the years. That hyphen, which a purist will insist upon, is significant: it is a Douglas-fir, rather than a Douglas fir, because it isn’t actually a fir. Still, most people will just write ‘Douglas fir’ – and who cares if they do?

A name can be abstract, descriptive, confusing, clear, liberating, oppressive, embarrassing, uplifting, whether you’re a person or a plant. Picking one is tricky – and there is no time when this is more true than marriage. Double-barrelling is simple, but really, you’re just passing the buck to any kids you may have. Keeping your old names can create administrative headaches (again, moreso if you have kids). A portmanteau splits you from both families, and can piss both of them off; so too can the very notion of a wife not taking her husband’s name, depending how traditional those families are. (I will pause here to note that my maternal grandparents always addressed their own daughter by her husband’s, my father’s, initials: Mrs M. G. Palin.)

We had it easy: our names blended well, and our families quickly came round to the idea. Not everyone is so lucky. But here’s what I think: wherever you end up, it’s OK. Every name is a compromise. The most important thing is that you know which plant you’re looking at. The most important thing is that you know who you are.

Photo by Andrew Hoyle

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