Sep/Oct 2012




Dan Miller
Staff Writer

McDara Talks Wood

What the heck did you guys do to him on the last outing? Just kidding folks, interesting article.




What is Oregon Pine?

Either from my rapidly advancing years, or my misspent youth in the 60’s or a combination thereof, I find I can be easily confused. Case in point, my wife and I recently volunteered to be tour guides in the Gamble house in Pasadena. I always thought of myself as a knowledgeable wood-guy and while I am continuously learning new things (as I’m sure all you fellow wood-guys are) some things I felt I knew pretty well.

I have been an amateur woodworker (and a part-time pro as a young man) for my entire life. Since I grew up in a heavily forested town in the wilds of Oregon, I’m sure you can understand my confusion when I was handed my docent training manual for the Gamble house and found that the alternate name of my beloved Douglas Fir was Oregon Pine. I was more that a bit befuddled. I had never heard of Oregon Pine and I am a Wood-guy and an Oregonian.

I have spent many hours in the forestry pavilion just outside of Portland. This was built to replace the worlds largest log cabin that was lost to fire in 1964. The huge building and its amazing forestry exhibits were built for the Lewis and Clark exposition in 1905 from massive Douglas Fir trees. They said they could have build 27 three bedroom homes from the wood used in that one room building.

My parents took friends from out of town, so many times, even at 12 years old I felt an extreme loss when I found out it was gone.

In my docent class I was stunned and extremely honored to meet and converse with the renowned woodworker and master craftsman Jim Ipekjian. He informed me that in reviewing the plans for the Gamble house, the structural

members were called out as OP (Oregon Pine). Douglas the botanist, whom the tree was named after, was not as common a name in 1907.

Somehow my brain played one of it’s many tricks on me and turned this information into an elaborate story about Douglas and how he was not alive in 1907, so no one had heard of Douglas fir at that time.

It was true that David Douglas was not alive in 1907, because he fell in a hole and died in 1834. He was exploring in Hawaii and didn’t see the animal trap, dug by the locals. He was 35 at the time.

I happened to be pondering this information when I was in front of my computer and decided that I should verify the story, I was so quick to tell to my fellow classmates. Imagine my embarrassment when I realized my error.

I contacted the research department at UCLA Library and asked if they could find out when the name "Douglas fir" was first given to that species of tree.

They informed me that the genus pseudotsuga (meaning false Tsuga) was given to the tree by the French botanist Elie-Abel Carrière in 1867. This was when his most important work Traité Général des Conifères which was originally published in 1855, was extensively revised.

Unfortunately they were unable to find out when the name Douglas Fir was first used. They did refer me to two sources. One was the oldest reference they were able to find:

Timber tests

Wing, Chas. B. Source: Engineering News, March 28, 1895

Database: Compendex

Abstract: Transverse tests of strength of the Douglas fir, by Prof. Chas. B. Wing. (See also criticism by Prof. J. B. Johnson.-Eng. News, March 28, 1895)

The second reference was for a book they did not have access to, but that was published on the history of the Douglas fir and was associated with the Forestry Resources Department at Oregon State University.

I contacted Dr. Edward C. Jensen at this department in OSU and he was able to shed a bit more light on the subject.

He was apologetic in that he was also not able to find the date the name was first given to this species of tree, but he explained how this would not be that unusual. It appears that common names are often like nicknames. Someone starts calling something by the name and it sticks.

Dr. Jensen informed me that there were over 20 different scientific names given to this particular species of tree and that the epithet menziesii was finally established in 1950.

Part of the difficulty with finding the actual date is in that Douglas fir is not actually a fir tree at all. To be a true fir the genus must be Abies, not pseudotsuga. Douglas fir is in the Pinaceae family so it is actually a pine.

This would seem to imply that the honorific was not bestowed by a botanist (one of the scientific names was pseudotsuga douglasii) but probably was used by the people in Europe that received the plants as a result of one of Douglas’s expeditions, calling it Douglas’s fir trees.

There is a rather low and common expression used to describe people like me who go to this much trouble to be accurate. Personally I like to think of myself as being careful, not the other name.


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