Archibald Menzies (1745-1842) [pronounced "MING-iss" in Europe (which is based on the Scottish tradition) and “MEN-zees” in the U.S.], was appointed as a surgeon and naturalists by the British government to accompany Captain George Vancouver on a global tour on the HMS Discovery.  The expedition left England in April 1791 and returned in October 1795.  After stopping in South Africa, Australia, and Hawaii they reached North America in April 1792.  Menzies visited Vancouver Island to collect plant samples in that year and possibly again in 1794, the collection included specimens of a widely prevalent, large, conifer tree, now known as Douglas-fir.  Menzies sent this and other plant material back to England, but there is no evidence seeds were collected or received or that the tree was introduced into cultivation at this time.

In 1803, some eight year after the return of the Discovery, Aylmer B. Lambert, a conifer authority in England, published an edition of his A description of the genus Pinus. Using the tree samples brought back by Menzies, he named the tree found on Vancouver Island as Pinus taxifolia because in had needles similar to those of the yew tree, a member of the genus Taxus.  Lambert states that he was unable to describe the cones “for those which were brought by Mr. Menzies having been unfortunately were mislaid.”  Unhappily for Lambert, the name Pinus taxifolia had been used for the name of a totally unrelated conifer by another English botanist, Richard Salisbury, in 1796. Thus Lambert’s use of the name was illegitimate according to international taxonomic rules.

After Menzies, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark may have been the next naturalists to carefully observe the tree.  In 1806 Lewis collected specimens of Douglas-fir while wintering at Fort Clatsop (near present day Astoria, Oregon), he labeled the samples Fir No. 5.  He carefully described the specimens, including the cone, and even drew a figure in his journal of the distinctive cone bract.  Unfortunately, many of the plant samples were lost to flood damage of a storage site and even those that reached President Jefferson in 1805 and again in 1806 ended up in Philadelphia and London or were lost. In 1813 Frederick Pursh published descriptions of some of Lewis and Clark plant material and equated their Douglas-fir samples with Lambert’s Pinus taxifolia.

Some three decades after Menzies introduced Douglas-fir to the scientific world, another Scotsman, David Douglas (1799-1834) arrived in the Pacific Northwest to describe and collect plants and animals for the Royal Horticultural Society.  He was aware of Menzies’ description of the conifer and soon recognized and was impressed by the giant trees; he wrote that this tree is “one of the most striking and graceful objects of Nature”.  He collected its seeds, shipped them off to England, and they arrived in 1827 as the first introduction of this species.  The tree became commonly known as the Douglas-fir and became popular in Europe for use in large landscapes and in forestry.

Lambert’s ultimately illegitimate name for the Douglas-fir 1803, was the first in a long succession of other names put forth by botanists over the next 140 years, the most notable ones were Pinus douglasii, Pseudotsuga douglasii, Abies mucronata, Pseudotsuga mucronata and Pseudotsuga taxifolia

In 1867 Elie-Abel Carrière published a revision the conifers, Traité général des conifers, in which he proposed the placement of Douglas-fir in the genus PseudotsugaTsuga is the genus of hemlocks so Pseudatsuga inferred a “false hemlock’. In his second edition of the work, the French horticulturist called Douglas-fir Pseudotsuga douglasii, basing his name on Pinus douglasii which was proposed in 1832 by the English botanist David Don who had studied the specimens provided by David Douglas.  Don was the librarian for Aylmar Lambert and the Linnean Society.

The next year, 1833, John Lindley, professor of botany at University College, London,  renamed the tree Abies douglasii in his weekly publication, Penny Cyclopaedia, and published the common name as “Douglas fir”, this name soon came to replace “Oregon pine”.

Carrière’s name, Pseudotsuga douglasii, was in use until Nathaniel Britton, the founder of the New York Botanical Garden, proposed Pseudotsuga taxifolia in 1889.  However in 1825, 64 years earlier, a French botanist, Charles Mirbel, had proposed Abies menziesii for the Douglas-fir, to honor Archibald Menzies. Mirbel’s name, Abies menziesii, was essentially overlooked for 125 years until 1950 when João do Amaral Franco, a Portuguese botanist, proposed the name Pseudotsuga menziesii.  Apparently at this time the genus name, Pseudostuga, was more or less accepted and the specific epithet, menzies, not only honored Archibald Menzies for his initial contribution but also cleared all the “taxonomic hurdles”.  Formal adoption of this name began in about 1953 and the name Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco is now the generally accepted name.  [The (Mirb.) Franco part of the official name refers to the authorities for the name, Charles Mirbel and João do Amaral Franco.] 

For a more detailed, and no doubt more precise, description of the path to the “scientific name” of Douglas-fir, see the excellent web article by James L. Reveal, A Nomenclatural Morass.