Originally created 12/06/01

That tree we put up has a history behind it



After studying the space we had for a Christmas tree, we visited a couple of tree lots, compared all the species and decided on a Fraser fir.

As you know, the Fraser fir was named for John Fraser, a Scottish botanist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who explored the mountains of North Carolina. The only place the tree grows, in fact, is in the southern Appalachians.

By the way, we didn't buy our tree at the lot that advertised "Frazer fir" trees because of the misspelling. I doubted that the trees on that lot were named for Joseph Washington Frazer, who spelled his name differently and was descended from the famed Washington family of Virginia. Toward the end of World War II, Frazer linked up with industrialist Henry J. Kaiser to build cars under the name Kaiser-Frazer Corp.

The word "kaiser," of course, means emperor and comes down to us through various European languages from its origin, Caesar, specifically Emperor Augustus Caesar. The kaiser of Germany was, basically, an emperor - a Caesar.

The Caesars were so powerful that the name also went into the Gothic and Old Russian languages and came out as "czar." So the name Caesar gave us not only kaiser but also czar.

Fraser wasn't the only Scottish botanist now remembered through the name of an evergreen. David Douglas traveled widely in the New World in the early part of the 19th century. Around 1825 in the Pacific Northwest, he first noticed a tree that took his name: the Douglas fir.

The Douglas fir isn't really a fir, though, so the name is often hyphenated: Douglas-fir. That's probably appropriate, because firs are confusing anyway. The tree is a member of the pine family, but the word is derived from the Latin for "oak."

The Douglas fir is especially perplexing, however, because it covers a range of species and has, at times, been called a pine, a spruce, a hemlock and a true fir.

In the Northwest, by the way, the wood of the Douglas fir is known as Oregon pine. And the scientific name for the tree means "false hemlock." Confusing, to say the least.

Just as confusing is the way Douglas died. Not by hemlock, but by bull. Maybe.

His body was found in Hawaii in a pit that had been dug to trap wild bulls. Although the bull that was discovered with his body was blamed for his death, some people say Douglas was murdered, perhaps by a fugitive prisoner, and tossed into the pit.

A few years before Douglas arrived - and died - British explorer James Cook had visited the Hawaiian Islands and named them the Sandwich Islands after his sponsor, John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich. Montagu, it is said, invented the sandwich as a way of freeing up his hands while at the gambling tables.

There is no record that Montagu ever used a kaiser roll for his sandwiches.

Cook also met a bad end, though not at the feet of a bull. A year after arriving and naming the islands for the first sandwich maker, he was killed while chasing a stolen rowboat.

Shortly afterward, Fraser found his fir. Later, he continued his botany at the sponsorship of the Russian czar and czarina.

Reach Glynn Moore at (706) 823-3419 or gmoore@augustachronicle.com.