David Douglas and the Sugar Pine

In October of 1826, David Douglas descends down the valley surrounding the Multnomah river (Willamette River) traveling in part through the forests on the fringe of the valley. He collects seeds and insects and notes all manner of “new” species.  He sees the valley floor was burned, as it normally is in late September by the Kalapuyan peoples, and notes they are forced into the forests to hunt for food. On the 10th of October Douglas descends into the Umpqua valley and eagerly collects new species. He travels along Red Deer River  valley, a small river which “empties itself into the River Aguilar or Umpqua, forty three miles from the sea,” and along the river he finds  a “beautiful evergreen tree” he calls Laurus Regia now called  Umbellularia californica, named finally by Nuttall as the California Bay Laural tree (Douglas Journals 67). 

Umbellularia californica

Douglas then notes that his Laurus Regia is used by his hunters, Indians hired to hunt for him, to keep him safe, and carry his gear,  who use its bark to create a decoction to drink as a beverage, perhaps a tea. Douglas notes that the tree has an “exceedingly powerful … a fragrant scent which it emits by rustling of its leaves” that it causes sneezing. Douglas compares it to the Myrtus Pimenta or allspice pepper tree. The laurel or bay laurel is a common spice in European cooking.

Douglas on about the 22nd had suffered an accident and was limping and unable to travel well.   On about the 23rd, Douglas travels to the home of Chief Centrenose of the Upper Umpquas and has a meal of salmon trout, hazelnuts and nuts of the Laurus regia “roasted in the embers.”  He then travels west to a smaller village four miles from that of Centrenose and so camped across the river from the village.  The Umpquas hosted him well bringing over to his camp salmon trout (steelhead?) weighing from 15 to 25 lbs. Centrenose came to visit and was “well disposed” towards Douglas choosing to accompany McLeod to the sea, and assigning his eldest son to accompany Douglas in his explorations into the upper valley. 

Sugar pine- King of pines
Sugar pine- King of pines

On about the 24th, a dreary wet day of thunderstorms Douglas is again traveling in the high country and on the southeast comes upon a grove of Pinus Libertiana, a tree we now call the Sugar Pine. He begins gathering cones, but is chased away by a party of eight Indians, who he escapes and then tired sets his goals on joining McLeod at the sea.  From there Douglas and his party travel north and loses his collections while crossing the Santiam. 

sugar pine cone

That his journal entry for 1826 on the sugar pine. However, Douglas was carrying on a vigorous dialogue with numerous scientists in England and elsewhere, one of his favorite pen pals being Sir Edward Sabine the geographer and explorer.  In a letter penned by Douglas on November 6th 1827 at Fort Vancouver, Douglas extends his description of the Sugar pine further. 

An account of a new species of Pinus, native of California; in a letter to Joseph Sabine, esp. F.R. and L.S. Secretary of the Horticultural Society. By Mr. David Douglas, A.L.S. Communicated by Mr. Sabine.

… considerable interest has been excited by reports of a new species of Pinus of gigantic size having been discovers in Northern California…. The plant covers large districts about a hundred miles from the ocean (exaggeration) in latitude 43 degrees north , and extends as far to the South as 40 degrees. It first came to my notice in August 1825, while at the headwaters of the Multnomah River.  In October 1826 it was my good fortune to meet with it beyond a range of mountains running south-western direction from the Rock Mountains towards the sea. (Again an inaccuracy, he probably means the Cascade Mountains.)  It grows sparingly  upon low hills, and the undulating country east of the range of mountains just mentioned… Here it attains its greatest size and perfects its fruit in most abundance. … they are scattered singly over the plains and may be considered a form of connecting link between the gloomy forests of the north and the more tropical-like verdure of California (Perhaps suggesting the Mediterranean climate for which CA is known.) The trunk grows from 150 to above 200 feet in height, varying from 20 to near 60 feet in circumference. … The trunk is unusually straight and destitute of branches about two thirds of its height. The bark is uncommonly smooth  for such a large timber of a light-brown colour on the south, and bleached on the north side. The branches are rather pendulous and form an open pyramidal head…. The cones are pendulous from the extremities of the branches, they are two years in acquiring full growth, are at first upright and do not begin to droop til the second year. The seeds are large 8 lines long and 4 broad (not sure what a “line” is) oval and their kernel is sweet and very pleasant to the taste.

sugar pine old growth

The whole tree produces an abundance of pure amber coloured resin. Its timber is white, soft, and light: it abounds in turpentine reservoirs… The resin which exudes from the trees when they are partly burned, loses its usual flavour, and acquires a sweet taste, in which state it is used by the natives as sugar, being mixed with their food. The seeds are eaten roasted or are pounded into coarse cakes for their winter store. … in 1793 seeds of a large Pine… were served in the dessert by the Spanish priests  (of the coast of California) These were no doubt the produce of the species…. 


The vernacular name of it, in the language of the Umptqua (sic) Indians is Nat-cleh. 

Douglas names the tree Pinus Lambertiana in honor of Aylmer Bourke Lambert Esq. a Vice-President of the Linnean Society, who is a keen student of the Pinus genus. 

In this letter, Douglas states that he encountered the tree in 1825 on the Multnomah River (Willamette). His journal entries of 1825 are much briefer. In May and June, Douglas advances into the Willamette Valley and by May 20th he is at the Santiam river and encountered a number of new species including Nicotiana Multivalvis, the tobacco of the valley.  “In the Tobacco pouches of the Indians.” assumed to be the Santiam tribe, ” I found the seeds of a remarkably large pine which they eat as nuts, and from whom I learned it existed in the mountains to the south. No time was lost in ascertaining the existence of this truly grand tree, which I named Pinus Lambertiana, but no perfect seeds could I find.”  (59)

From the account, this suggests that he traveled south to find the tree, found one, but it was not the season for the seeds to be collected. There was much information given by the Santiam Indians. 

Sugar pine seeds (nuts)

There is great value in Douglas’s accounts of the Sugar Pine.  However, he clearly cared not at all that the tribes had a name for the tree which he gathered in the field from the Umpqua peoples who hosted him so well, Chief Centrenose treats him very well and goes out of his way to help the party despite being recently married and somewhat unwilling to leave his new bride at home. So regardless of the treatment by the Umpquas, and their obvious cultural use of the tree, Douglas created a Latin name for the tree based on a scholar in Britain, someone who likely never visited Oregon or California. The gall of such an act when Douglas knew beforehand the name of the tree was Nat-cleh is astounding, but incredibly common in the history of exploration and colonization of the frontier regions by Europeans. 

Unconsciously, Douglas records something he likely did not realize at the time. In previous journal entries, he noted the Indians setting fires to the plains. In this time, there was no notion among scholars and naturalists that the fires were modifying the landscape in an intentional manner by the tribes. The tribes used pyroculture, or anthropogenic fire, to renew the land and produce more food. If the Sugar pine sap is then chemically changed by fire, then it stands to reason that the Indians knew this and perhaps annually sets fires, in part, to produce the sugary sap they liked for their meals. That is the implication of what Douglas is noting.

This is an example from the Umpqua, and perhaps other tribes of the Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) of their lands. In addition, the two narratives from 1825 and 1826 bridge two tribes and their cultural use of the Sugar pine as a food of many properties, a truly remarkable ethnographic account.

I had some questions about who these Umpqua were culturally. There are three Umpqua peoples, those on the coast, those on the upper river inland, and those on the Cow Creek drainage. The Cow Creeks are Takelma speakers, and the upper Umpquas are Athapaskan speakers. Based on the location of the Centrenose village (about 23-40 miles from the sea) this is likely an upper Umpqua village. The confirmation is in the Umpqua name for the Sugar Pine, Nat-cleh, which to me appears to be Athapaskan. I posed this question to Coos Linguist Patti Whereat Phillips, and she confirmed that this is indeed the case. 

“Definitely!         Lucy Smith and Wolverton Orton in Harrington 25:1001a – Lucy & Wolverton-ná•tt£’æ•tchvnnæ, sugar pine.  You lay the burrs by the fire & thus roast them & then the nuts come out easily.  Big trees & limbs start far up. I have my Ind allotment 15 miles back of Gold Beach.  Coquelle Thompson – ná•tt£’æ, sugar pine nut (I am using v = uh. Lucy knew Gold Beach dialect and Orton Chasta Costa, upriver from there))
25:1095b Coquelle Thompson na•tt£’æ•=surgar pine tree. But ná•tt£’æ•-θbv’n=sugar pine nuts
Upper Umpqua was a different dialect, but probably similar enough, looks like it. Meanwhile, Galice Creek which is quirkily different has the word starting with a t-
But in Takelma: ya•l=sugar pine. k’wels (with a _| over the e) =roots of ya•l tree used for basketry. Put the roots in the sun and they get red. Hungry Hill way down Cow Creek=tak’we\#lsaman, meaning on top of roots. It’s in hills between Glendale and mouth of Cow Creek. (H28:563)” (all contributed by Patty Whereat Philips, correspondence 9/13/2018).


Transactions of the Linnean Society of London.
London :[The Society], 1791-1875.
https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/683; v.15 (1827): https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/13694; 
Page(s): Page 497, Page 498, Page 499, Page 500

Journal kept by David Douglas, 1914, Pages 67-69

Correspondence with Patty Whereat Philips. 




One thought on “David Douglas and the Sugar Pine

  1. David,

    Emmons in 184l, reported huge pine trees in Astoria. When posting on FB several people said that could not be. But it was. They no longer are found. But they where here.

    Loved this article. Keep up your great work!



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