Born in Perthshire, Scotland in 1754. He joined his elder brother, William, and worked at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh as a gardener. However, thanks to John Hope, Professor of Botany, he trained as a surgeon at the University of Edinburgh. He made a botanical tour of the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides. He later joined the Royal Navy as an assistant surgeon, and saw active service.
He wrote to Sir Joseph Banks (who accompanied Captain James Cook on his 1768-71 voyage; visited Iceland in 1772; later served as an honorary director at Kew; and as president of the Royal Society in 1778), and sent him seed samples. From 1786-89 he travelled as ship's surgeon to the north-west coast of America and to China.
He set sail on 1 April 1791 as naturalist and ship's surgeon on HMS Discovery with Captain George Vancouver – who had accompanied Captain Cook on his second (1772-75) and third (1776-80) voyages as a midshipman.
Their epic voyage lasted 4 years and 5 months, during which time they visited Australia (discovered King George Sound), New Zealand, Hawaii (Sandwich Islands), and spent three years exploring the North American coast looking for the fabled North-West Passage.
Archibald Menzies described a number of remarkable plants and trees (among the Coastal Sequoia), and is credited with bringing back the seeds of the Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria aracauna) – its scientific name is based on the Aracaunos Indians who eat the nuts as part of their staple diet. Its informal name is said to be the result of a remark by someone viewing the trees that sprouted from the seeds 30 years later and saying "To climb that would puzzle a monkey". However, there are no monkeys in its native Chile).
Unfortunately, the relationship between Captain Vancouver and Archibald Menzies was strained. Sir Joseph Banks had to intervene to avoid the latter having to face a court-martial.
Although some plants were named after him (like Abies Menziesii; however, some were later renamed), Menzies never quite achieved the prominence and fame that he deserved. He died on 15 February 1842 – a month to the day before his 88th birthday.
Still, Archibald Menzies is forever associated with Britain's tallest tree and another man linked to Britain's tall trees – Scottish botanist David Douglas. The Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), also known as the Douglas Pine, was first described by Menzies, but it was David Douglas who introduced it to Britain around 30 years later. Douglas also introduced other North American tall tree species: like the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and Grand fir (Abies grandis). In total, he is credited with introducing over 200 plants and trees to Britain. Tragically, he was gored to death in Hawaii when he fell into a pit trap which had already snared a wild bull. He was 35 years old when he died in 1834.